738 days in a Californian Redwood

What does it take to prevent ancient forests being cut down? Emails? Petitions? Placards? Or direct action to offer one’s body as collateral? There are not many who wish to consider this possibility – some would say it’s too extreme, irrational or unreasonable, while forgetting the irrational act itself of the destruction of natural habitat. For Julia Butterfly Hill the decision to live 738 days in a 1000 year old redwood to prevent its destruction was not only a rational decision, but a decision based on her heart and her connection to an ancient form of life on this planet.

Julia Butterfly Hill (www.juliabutterfly.com)

While adopting ‘Butterfly’ as a name in childhood after a butterfly landed on her finger during a day hike and which stayed with her the rest of the journey, she underwent her own metamorphosis after a serious car accident at the age of 22. After a year of intensive therapy she regained the ability to speak and walk again, while contemplating her life “…the crash woke me up to the importance of the moment, and doing whatever I could to make a positive impact on the future.”

Julia speaking from the platform on the giant redwood (www.findhorn.org)

This change led her to Humboldt County in California where ancient redwood forests were being cut down by the Pacific Lumber Company. Not affiliated to any organisation at the time, however, she was the only one who volunteered to stay up for a week, 180 feet above the ground. On 10th of December 1997 Julia ascended ‘Luna’, the giant redwood and only came down the 18thof December, 1999. She lived on two 6 x 6 foot platforms and used Luna’s trunk for exercise, while hoisting up supplies and surviving 40 mile/hr winds and icy rain from El Nino, logger intimidation, helicopter harassment and a siege by the logging company security guards. The final agreement resulted in the protection of Luna and all trees in a 200 ft buffer zone, while money raised by Earthfirst! went to the logging company which donated the money to Humboldt University for research into sustainable forestry.

Giant redwoods (Crd637 – wikicommons)

While this story is significant and raised awareness to the only 3 % remaining ancient redwood forests, there were also powerful personal insights during this time of seclusion. “Initially I was just angry, but that anger was killing me. After a while I came to realise that I was up there because I love – I love the forest, I love this planet, I love the world.” And while listening to an argument by fellow protestors “I thought to myself, how in the world do we think we can end the clear-cutting on the planet if we’re so effective at clear-cutting each other? I realised in that moment that the outward landscape is a reflection of the inner landscape. It’s the wounds in ourselves that perpetuate the wounds on the planet.” And during one powerful storm her connection with the trees yielded “The trees that are too rigid are the ones that break, it’s the ones that are flexible and go crazy with the wind that make it through the storm. They told me, you need to bend like the trees in the storm. From then on I embraced life because I embraced death.”

Julia spreading her message (Gary Mattingly)

Julia has continued with environmental activism, while writing a book and speaking to audiences around the world. She has been the subject of several documentaries while also inspiring several musicians to write songs about her story and her activism.

Britain’s Trees

A land covered by ice and glaciers

Britain’s native trees have not always been present and rooted – they were scoured clean from the earth during the last ice age 20 000 years ago. Species migrated southwards until reaching the physical barrier of the Alps. As the ice retreated about 10 000 years later, trees recolonised the landscape. This was easier due to the land bridge connecting mainland Europe that was not yet covered by rising sea levels. After a few thousand years of growth, Britain would have been covered by magnificent woodland.

Ariundle Nature Reserve (scotland.gov.uk)

A few thousand years later, so about 5000 years ago, ancient peoples cleared small sections of forest for agriculture and livestock farming. These people had religions connected with nature and it is around this time (4000 to 5000 years ago), that Stonehenge was erected. Later, during the Iron Age, the Celtic priestly class or druids played a strong role in determining the inhabitants’ connection with nature and trees. It is thought the word ‘druid’ is derived from Indo-European roots meaning ‘oak-seer’ or ‘oak-knower’. Especially important trees in Celtic mythology and tradition were the oak, ash, apple, alder, elder and yew. Trees were sacred and had spirits, while forests were ruled by a single goddess.

Systems of thought connected to nature were more prevalent in ancient Britain (Wigulf)

The Romans brought more organized agriculture and farming, as well as increased deforestation. Roman expansion had already led to deforestation of the Mediterranean basin and resource pressure turned their eye towards Northern Europe and Britain. Naturally there were also political reasons for expansion, including punishment of the Britons for their aiding of the Gauls.

Deforestation continued and in 1086 William the Conqueror with his Domesday census found that less than 15 % of the natural forest remained across England. However, he did enact forest laws in order to sustain hunting grounds. During the middle ages Vikings also burned sections of forest as part of their campaigns.

The continuous demand for timber throughout history (ukscblog.com)

Deforestation continued with the industrial revolution and the rise of sheep farming, faster growing coniferous forests were planted and the ancient broadleaf forests continued their decline; this has been observed in the pollen record. After the First World War it was realised that Britain had nearly run out of timber, and further fast-growing species were introduced along with the creation of the Forestry Commission. Quick fixes often do not work in natural ecosystems, and this was too late for the wolf, bear, wild boar, beaver, lynx and elk.

Wolves were common in Britain (print by www.martinridley.com)

11.6 % of the U.K is currently covered by woodland, with England at about 9 % and Northern Ireland at 6.4 %. This is significantly lower than the European Union average of 37 %. While there are still pockets of ancient forests, trees in Britain have paid the price of industrialisation and war.