Meet Julia ‘Butterfly’ Hill, The Environmental Activist Who Lived In A Tree For Two Years

Published December 4, 2023

For 738 days, Julia "Butterfly" Hill lived 180 feet above the ground in a California redwood named Luna to prevent loggers from destroying it — and she succeeded.

Julia Butterfly Hill

Humboldt County Library – Arcata Branch/FacebookFor two years, Julia “Butterfly” Hill lived in a coast redwood named Luna to protect it from being knocked down.

Thirty miles inland from the coast of Northern California, deep in the forests of Humboldt County, stands a 200-foot-tall California redwood named Luna. This powerful tree has stood an estimated 1,000 years, and could live 1,000 more still. But had it not been for an environmental activist named Julia “Butterfly” Hill, Luna would not exist today.

In December 1997, Hill climbed Luna to protest the deforestation of California redwoods by Pacific Lumber — and stayed in the tree for over two years. For 738 days, she camped 180 feet above the ground on two six-foot platforms, weathering freezing rain, heavy winds, and corporate harassment. There were moments when she thought she was going to die.

But despite the many setbacks she faced, her record-breaking tree sit saved Luna and helped raise awareness of clear-cut logging.

“Seven billion of us — and counting — are all ‘activists,’ because we’re actively shaping our world,” Hill later told The Sun. “The question is not ‘How can I, one person, make a difference?’ The question is ‘What kind of difference do I want to make?'”

The Metamorphosis Of Julia Hill

Julia Hill

Julia Butterfly Hill/FacebookJulia Butterfly Hill lived 20 stories above the ground in a tree for over two years.

Julia Hill was born in 1974. Her father, Dale, was a traveling minister, and the Hill family lived in a camper van until Hill was about 10 years old.

As told in Dawn Fitzgerald’s book Julia Butterfly Hill: Saving the Redwoods, one day, when Julia was six years old, her family was hiking along a river when a butterfly landed on Julia’s finger. It stayed with her for the entire rest of the hike, inspiring her family to nickname her “Butterfly” — and it stuck.

The Hill family eventually settled in Arkansas, where Julia went on to attend college. During that time, she worked multiple part-time jobs but felt aimless, uncertain what she wanted to do after school. Then, in 1996, she was involved in a car crash that nearly killed her. Her car was hit from behind by a drunk driver, and her head smashed through the steering wheel.

It took nearly a year of intensive therapy for Hill be able to speak and walk normally again. During this time, Hill underwent a spiritual crisis.

“As I recovered, I realized that my whole life had been out of balance,” Hill said, according to SFGate. “I had graduated high school at 16, and had been working nonstop since then, first as a waitress, then as a restaurant manager. I had been obsessed by my career, success, and material things. The crash woke me up to the importance of the moment, and doing whatever I could to make a positive impact on the future.”

And so Hill embarked on the journey that would eventually lead her to the California redwoods.

Hill’s Fateful Encounter With Earth First!

Julia Hill ended up traveling west to California for a reggae festival and environmental fundraiser, where she connected with a group of activists from the environmental organization Earth First! The group was protesting the clearcutting of local redwoods by the logging company Pacific Lumber Co. In 1997, only about three percent of the ancient redwood ecosystem remained.

Luna

Stuart Moskowitz“Luna,” the ancient redwood tree Julia Hill sat in for two years.

“When I entered the ancient redwoods for the first time, I dropped to my knees and began to cry,” Hill wrote in the New York Times. “I connected with a higher purpose for my life. These beautiful forests were being clear-cut, and I wanted to do something.”

Then, she learned that Earth First! was doing tree sits — prolonged camps in trees to draw attention to the need to protect them. The group needed someone to stay in one particular redwood on Pacific Lumber property in Humboldt County so that loggers couldn’t cut it down.

Hill was the only one to volunteer.

At first, she imagined she’d only be living in the tree for a couple of weeks. Instead, she lived there for over two years.

Julia Butterfly Hill’s Record-Breaking Tree Sit

On Dec. 10, 1997, at the age of 23, Hill ascended the 1,000-year-old lightning-struck tree that would be her home for the next two years. She named the tree Luna, the Latin word for “moon,” after the full moon that was hanging in the sky around the time Hill’s sleeping platform was constructed.

She spent her days living 180 feet above the ground, conducting interviews with local news stations by solar-powered cell phones, answering letters, collecting rain water to drink, and surviving off of food brought up occasionally by other volunteers.

The winter of 1997-98 was a particularly brutal one in Northern California due to the powerful El Niño storms that struck the region that season, bringing freezing rains and 40-mile-per-hour winds.

“One night I thought I was going to die,” Hill wrote in the New York Times. “The wind was 90 m.p.h. Imagine you’re on a bucking bronco. Put that bronco on a ship at sea, in the middle of a storm. Then put that 180 feet in the air. I was broken, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, suffering frostbite, cut off from the only people that care whether I live or die. I grabbed Luna and started praying.”

Hill said she survived by learning to live as one with Luna, swaying with the tree as its branches bent in the winds.

Julia Butterfly Hill Faces Up Against Pacific Lumber

Weather wasn’t the only thing Hill had to survive during those two years. She faced near constant harassment and threats from employees of Pacific Lumber Co. and its parent company, Maxxam Corporation.

Throughout her tree sit, loggers yelled threats at Hill from the ground and felled trees directly around her so they would knock against Luna. At one point, the company staged guards around Luna to prevent volunteers from reaching Hill in an attempt to starve her out. And in one particularly frightening intimidation attempt, the company even had a helicopter fly directly over the platform she was living on.

Pacific Lumber refused to negotiate with Hill for about year because, as CEO John Campbell explained, “she [was] breaking the law. She [was] trespassing. And you don’t negotiate with people who are breaking the law.”

Luna Camp

Photo by Shaun Walker/ZUMA Press.Julia Butterfly Hill spent two birthdays in the tree.

But in December 1999, Hill and Pacific Lumber reached a mutual agreement. Luna and all other trees within a 200-foot buffer zone would be protected. Hill and the other environmental activists paid Pacific Lumber $50,000 for the loss of revenue, which Pacific Lumber then donated to Humboldt State University for research into sustainable foresting.

Finally, 738 days after she first climbed Luna, Hill descended to solid ground.

Julia Butterfly Hill’s Life ‘After Tree’

Julia Butterfly Hill’s time with Luna had far surpassed the record for the world’s longest tree sit at more than eight times the previous 90-day record.

The experience had affected her so deeply, she said, that she now thinks of her life in terms of “before tree” and “after tree.”

“The person I’d been when I’d gone up and the person I was when I came down were so profoundly different that I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to live in the world again,” Hill told The Sun in 2012. “When I set foot on the earth, there was a lot of emotion. There was extreme joy, because we’d protected the tree and the grove around it, which a lot of people had said was impossible. But there was also sadness. I had become so much a part of that tree, and it had become so much a part of me, that I wasn’t sure I would fit in with other people.”

Hill’s tree sit had garnered national attention. She became a motivational speaker, and for years, she toured the world speaking about her time with Luna, sometimes averaging 250 events a year. She also founded the Circle of Life foundation, which ran speaking tours, music festivals, and training programs to promote environmental awareness and activism.

Julia Butterfly Hill In 2011

DPA Picture Alliance Archive / Alamy Stock PhotoJulia Butterfly Hill continued to work as an activist after her record-breaking tree sit.

Meanwhile, she continued her activism; in 2002, she was arrested and jailed in Ecuador for protesting a proposed oil pipeline that would destroy an Andean cloud forest, which hosts more than 400 rare bird species. And she authored The Legacy of Luna, a national best-seller detailing her time with Luna, the lessons she learned, and what she wants the public to know.

“One day, through my prayers, an overwhelming amount of love started flowing into me, filling up the dark hole that threatened to consume me,” she wrote in her 2000 memoir. “I suddenly realized that what I was feeling was the love of the Earth, the love of Creation. Every day we, as a species, do so much to destroy Creation’s ability to give us life. But that Creation continues to do everything in its power to give us life anyway. And that’s true love.”

But being in the public eye 24/7 took a huge mental and emotional toll on Hill. In 2014, she took a step back from her public activism to focus on her health, but she still advocates for causes she is passionate about and does what she can to help from behind the scenes.

The Lessons Hill Learned From Luna

Although Julia Butterfly Hill initially spent two years in a tree to protest the deforestation of California’s redwoods, she says the lessons she learned extend far beyond one particular forest or tree.

“While I was in Luna, I learned that every issue we’re facing is the symptom, and the disease is the disease of disconnect,” Hill said in an interview with Trees Foundation. “When we’re disconnected from the Earth and we’re disconnecting from each other, we make choices and don’t realize how it’s truly impacting all of us, and that means all the beings, everything, and the future generations.

“I wanted to try and help weave that together for people, that if we’re working on the symptoms, if we don’t work also at the disease, we’ll never be able to get to the healing that our world and our planet needs.”

Julia Butterfly Hill In Luna

Jacob Freeze/FlickrJulia Butterfly Hill says her time in Luna completely changed her outlook on life.

Hill started the “What’s Your Tree” project to impress on people that even if they can’t sit in a tree for two years, they can still have a cause that drives them.

“What’s Your Tree helps people clarify their purpose and passion, then take action,” Hill told The Sun. “We all have our own version of a tree sit that’s out there waiting for us. It’s our life’s calling. There is a ‘tree’ for every one of us, and this tree can call us to be bigger than we believe ourselves to be and to create a life that is more amazing than we can imagine.”


After reading about Julia Butterfly Hill’s environmental activism, check out these photos that show the devastating effects of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Or, read about the long-forgotten ‘Mother of Climate Science.’

Hannah Reilly Holtz
Hannah Reilly is an editorial fellow with All That's Interesting. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Texas Tech University and was named a Texas Press Association Scholar. Previously, she has worked for KCBD NewsChannel 11 and at Texas Tech University as a multimedia specialist.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.