Yesterday, a bright morning sun pierced the woods near my home. It illuminated my drive down Lookout Mountain with views of yellow Hickories and Sweetgum as well as red Maples and Dogwood. Trees were much on my mind as I had just finished Julia Butterfly Hill’s remarkable book about her two years lived on a platform nestled in the heart of a giant Redwood tree. Her book is titled The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman, and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods.
When I reached the valley below, a large oak appeared backlit, sunbeams turning its brown leaves a translucent red. I thought of this woman who named herself Butterfly and of the tree, already named Luna when she arrived. She revealed her sudden illuminations on page after page, and I realized that very little in my personal experience prepared me for her remarkable story. Despite the alien nature of her adventure, analogies appeared, stories not beckoned. My stories are, for me, the best way to understand the stories of others.
My own experience with giant trees is limited to a few eastern old growth forests, most recently the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness named for the author of the beloved, though often satirized poem, “Trees.” Though small by comparison to the ancient Redwoods of Northern California, these trees tower above hikers on the trail. Some would say that the feeling of Creation and Creator is tangible in these forests. These old growth trees certainly set the mood of being in a special place.
I have been told that it is the kiss of death to be labelled a Nature Poet, and this was certainly the case for the bard who authored the poem “Trees.” Poetry aficionados show scant regard for Kilmer and his works. The forest got its name at the request of a group of veterans and commemorates his service and death in World War II, more than his poetry. In a twist of irony, this commemorated man is ignored by fellow poets, a group who find themselves generally ignored by the larger society. He is commemorated by a grove of Tulip Trees, not logged because the company railroad could not reach them. In unprotected zones, these trees are highly valued as timber. Tulip Trees (also known as Tulip Poplar, even though they are a kind of Magnolia) grow fast, straight, and large. They are a favorite of lumbermen, which was likely a factor in helping them to become the State Tree of Tennessee.
This morning, the moon, for which Luna was named, has crossed the sky and shines round and full, just above the trees which surround my porch. A faint pink line, like that on the side of a Brook Trout, edges the Eastern horizon, squeezed between the dark line of trees below and iron gray clouds above.
This woman named Butterfly, was similarly squeezed between her love for the forest, her sympathy for the residents of Stafford, victimized by a mud slide after a clear cut on land adjacent to the grove where Luna stood, and a larger society which was at times hostile, supportive, and indifferent to her struggle to save the trees.
While buffeted by winds, hail, and cold, she suffered and recovered from frostbite. She clung to the platform and later the tree itself, fearing the wind would knock her loose and send her plummeting to the ground. She faced an oncoming lightning storm and prayed to the Creator and Creation for strength and survival. She referred to the tree as a Goddess and says that the tree itself taught her how to survive the first winter.
Meanwhile, Pacific Lumber, owner of the land on which Luna stood, tried to get her to come down. The state government tried to get her to come down. Some activists, who saw her as an intruder and an outsider, tried to get her to come down. Company guards tried to starve her out of the tree by blockading her supply chain. News media saw her as a commodity to exploit.
Through all this, she stayed in the tree and learned the lessons of the forest. She grew spiritually yet relied on others. She was supported by activists through the environmental movement, by celebrities such as Joan Baez, and by school children who sent stamps. Native American activist Leonard Peltier, supported her from his prison cell. Other generous people sent hats, winter clothing, and food. She had a ground support crew that never gave up on her. She emerged transformed and dedicated to a struggle that continues today.
The Legacy of Luna
The Story of a Tree, a Woman, and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods
Julia Butterfly Hill
Harper Collins Inc., Publishers, New York