Conscious Activism in Practice
Julia Butterfly Hill
This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s book Consciousness
In Action: the Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time
(Lantern Press, 2005)
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the Earth.
--(Rumi, thirteenth-century Sufi poet)
Introduction (Andrew Beath)
Our actions reveal our depth of connection. I define conscious activism
as engagement in the world that expresses our most profound understanding
of the nature of reality. It is imbued with appreciation and reverence
and encourages compassionate connection—the basis for lasting
Many of the most effective activists I know exemplify the qualities
I am elaborating here. One moving example is Julia Butterfly Hill.
Her story provides a grounding to consider seven attributes of conscious
activism as a personal practice that creates transformation.
Julia spent more than two years living 180 feet up in an ancient
Redwood tree known as “Luna” to protect it from being
cut. Her notoriety stems from the courage and perseverance that
kept her perched in Luna’s branches in the face of on-going
assaults from the weather and the lumber company and from her heart-felt
presentations of what the Redwoods taught her. I discussed Julia’s
personal story with her, and we framed our conversation in the context
of the seven attributes of conscious activism. Her example brings
life to these concepts.
In her youth Julia accompanied her father, an evangelical preacher
who traveled the country giving sermons in tents. By her early twenties
she owned and operated a restaurant. Then an auto accident changed
her life. Her old personality patterns disintegrated because her
injuries caused short-term memory loss. But they also expanded her
emotional vulnerability. She was forced to leave the business world
To allow herself time to heal she traveled across the country.
In northern California she happened upon the majestic groves of
cathedral-like Redwoods while these ancient trees were in the process
of being commercially logged. The activist group Earth First! was
attempting to save some of the oldest trees by living on platforms
high up in their branches. If the loggers cut a protected tree,
the fall would kill the person living in it.
Julia’s injury, and the winds of chance that blew away her
former reality, combined to show her the urgency of defending these
ancient trees. She volunteered for a two-week turn, but her dedication
extended the adventure beyond two years.
Know what is enough, and you’ll be rich.
--(The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu)
The Nonviolence of Letting Go
When I spoke with Julia, I could feel her words coming from a deeply
informed place within her. As a result of her relationship to the
forest, she emerged from the tree as an eloquent spokesperson for
the natural world. I asked her to talk about her personal transformation
while in Luna and about how the elements of conscious activism apply
to what she had experienced. Here is what she told me:
"I changed while in Luna, but it was through understanding
myself. The experience gave me an unshakable belief in the interconnection
of life, because the only way I could survive was to become one
with the tree, to merge with it, to absorb it and have it absorb
The trees and storms taught me. In my struggle to say I was something
separate from the storms I was going out of my mind. I heard the
trees say, “Julia, we become one with the storms. We don’t
fight them.” The trees and the branches that fight the storms
are the ones that break off. The ones that make it through are the
ones that just give in and flail and bend and do whatever they have
to do to become one with the storm.
For me, part of getting to know Luna involved getting to know myself
as Luna and Luna as me. There is no separation. Once I understood
this, I changed dramatically.
People say, “We hear you talk about prayer all the time.
Who or what do you pray to?” I pray to what I call the Universal
Spirit. That’s one of the ways I have of describing it. There’s
also the Greater Self and the Consciousness of Oneness. These titles
denote the same thing for me.
When I pray I put it out to the Greater Self, of which the individual
is an integral part. There is no time, space or separation. Some
people respond and I’m grateful for the opportunity to mirror
the wisdom we already know. It’s been said before, but I say
it through the lens of my experiences and style. This awareness
is universal. It was the forest that helped open the pathway back
into my deep self through Luna. For others, something else will
provide this opening.
There Is No Enemy
The source of the solution is inside all forms of life. It’s
in the seagull flying over us now. It’s in the trees, wind
and rain. It’s in George Bush and in Bin Laden. Some people
get angry when I make that assertion. “How can you say those
evil, terrible people have this within them?” And I think,
well they’re doing some pretty terrible things, yes, but that
sacred point of life is within them, as well. They are lost from
it, but it’s there.
People who do destructive things are sometimes my greatest teachers.
When people hear me talk about the message of love, transformation
and spirituality, a lot of them assume I was in a fairy-tale forest
with birds around me chirping and lush greenery everywhere. They
see me sitting in the lotus position at the top of the tree contemplating
the meaning of the universe. But I sat through the most painful
journey a person who loves the forest could have immersed herself
in. I sat in a forest being cut down. I sat through hours and hours
of chain saws buzzing every day, destroying one tree after another,
helicopters hovering above me, napalm smoke burning my lungs and
eyes, and emotional assault from people within the environmental
movement I thought I could trust.
It was an attack on every level and that’s why I know the
importance of love and sacred spirituality. They are the essence
of life. This is what enabled me to get through the experience.
I learned it by having to use it in order to survive and stay sane.
So now this knowledge is unshakable. Some people think the message
of love and spirituality is all fluff, or not really dealing with
the issues, as though I’m just avoiding the tough stuff. But
that is definitely not so. I learned about the power of love through
direct confrontation with hostile forces. Love goes right to the
heart of the matter, to its source. That’s why it has the
potential to transform any situation.
Introspection and Self-Discovery
I am sometimes greeted with violent responses, verbal, energetic
or physical, when I talk about what I discovered about myself, and
all of us, while in Luna. Opening a pathway into consciousness can
be frightening, especially if you don’t know it’s closed.
When it’s brought to your attention, it’s a shock. It
was for me with my experience in the Redwoods.
When I first entered the forest, I became conscious of an essential
piece of my being that had been hidden underneath religion, society,
even my concepts of who I am. These blockages began to dissolve
as my tears fell onto the forest floor. I sobbed because the beauty
around me reminded me of the forgotten beauty within. I could not
have explained it at the time. Later I realized the heart hurts
when it grows. My naiveté washed away as I began to see something
unexpected within my center in the middle of the woods.
This was in July of 1997, before I went into the tree. Just a few
weeks later I found out the forests were being destroyed. I saw
my first clear cut, mudslides, destroyed homes and police using
pepper spray on the activists. I sobbed, screamed, raged and cried
because it hurt so. It was very painful. The more you immerse yourself
in the forest’s sacred presence, the more you learn. The loss
overwhelms many people, but for me, it became a reason to live.
Before climbing into Luna I didn’t know I had reason to look
for anything, but I had a vague sense I needed to find purpose for
why I’m here on Earth. I knew I needed my purpose and my essence.
I compare it to the caterpillar. It feels compelled to spin into
a cocoon. It doesn’t have a teacher showing it how, or telling
it what’s going to happen. It just has this innate knowing.
That was the intensity of my tree sit. It immersed me in the innermost
depth of my being. That’s why I say I don’t see something
other than me when I look at Luna or anything else. I see another
face of the divine, of which each of us is a part --one of many
facets reflecting the One Self back to the other.
Living One’s Vision Creates Social Transformation
For me, one of the most beautiful results of one’s journey
is that it shines out to others, like a beacon. When we go all the
way through the transformational process and integrate the changes,
so they are alive within us, we become not only a guide but also
a catalyst for other people who are at critical points in their
transformation. As one of us transforms we activate transformational
energies in others, which enables them to more readily reconnect
with the wisdom of their innate creative source.
I saw this when a woman approached me after I came down from Luna.
She was crying and said, “I have a story to share. A little
while before you went into the tree I was diagnosed with terminal
cancer and I was given six months to live. I heard you on the radio
one day, and then I heard you a month later. Not only did you climb
into a tree and live there for two years, you did it in the worst
winter of recent memory. You were on the radio during a terrible
storm and you talked about the trees teaching you how to bend and
flow with the wind.” She said that as time passed and she
heard more of my reports on the radio my voice changed: “As
the way you said things changed, I started feeling the transformation
you were going through. I decided that if you could go through that
and change as you were, then I could live through cancer.”
She told me two and a half years later and she had been in remission
for a year.
We are like the caterpillar when it goes into the cocoon and becomes
liquefied; it’s a total acceptance of death of the self we
were attached to and a willingness to become something we never
believed we could be. I’ve talked to people who have had serious
injuries that led to their transformation. But some people don’t
have to go through anything so intense. They just walk to a mountaintop
at the right moment and it clicks. Something connects and they come
down changed. That’s their spark of inspiration to take the
next step, to search out what they felt, why they felt it, and what
they are to do with this new understanding.
I want to give people both the inspiration and means to undertake
their transformational journeys. The impetus for change need not
be a life-and-death crisis. But the process usually includes a stage
of letting go of the familiar, as with the caterpillar in its cocoon,
so the unexpected can emerge.
I tell people if they wake up every day and ask the question, how
may I offer my life today in loving service to the world, then they’ll
intuit their own answers. That’s really what I did up there
in the tree and it’s what I do now. That’s what kept
me up there in Luna for so long.
I could not have stayed in the tree for 738 days if my focus had
been on destroying the loggers—which it was in the beginning
because I was so hurt by what was happening. When an animal is hurt
or afraid it’s instinctual response is to strike out or to
run. I went through both of those reactions. Later, I woke up and
asked, “How can I offer my life today?” I also asked
myself questions like, “Am I more effective in the tree or
on the ground?” By these means, I brought my emotions, spirit
and mental processes together.
The number one factor is taking the time to be still. That was
a crucial part of what I did. I sat in one place for two years.
This world compels us to be bigger, better, faster, now. So to take
a moment to be still each day is one of the most revolutionary acts
a person can undertake. The second step requires us to be willing
to be open. We get so convinced of who we think we are, what the
world is, and what our place is, that we close off. But there is
a larger world that you don’t realize exists until you open
to a wider spectrum of perception. It requires an act of courage
to face what you have not wanted to see, both internally and externally.
Eros, the Art of Loving-Kindness
The root word for courage is the Latin word “cor,”
which means heart. That’s where true courage comes from. It
is the heart that motivates our greatest acts of courage and kindness.
Courage is not an act of bravado. It has nothing to do with ego
or adrenaline. It has to do with falling in love, and having the
courage to give over fully to it. I learned this in the tree after
I said, “Okay teach me this lesson; allow me to love.”
By that point I had given myself over to it all. My pain consumed
me. It hurt to sit in the middle of a clear-cut forest. I became
one with it. To become one, and then watch yourself being destroyed,
hurts. I cry every time I talk about this, even in front of large
groups. I don’t suppress these feelings because it is crucial
to me that I never shut down again. And the flip side of my pain
is the joy I’m connected to again. In the beginning of the
tree sitting I didn’t know I would ever experience joy again.
I was too devastated. I became anger that wanted to strike out.
It was taking me over completely.
I almost gave up and came down. Then I prayed and said, “If
I’m going to be able to do this, I have to find another way.
I’m willing to surrender, but teach me how to love.”
Then it was one hardship after another. I prayed, “Would you
please give me strength. I need strength.” Then, I’d
get another hardship. What kind of karma am I working off, I wondered.
Finally, this understanding came: Julia, do you get muscles by doing
nothing? No. Strength is not something that can be handed to you.
You asked for strength, I’m giving you the tools you need
to become strong.
I think it’s crucial to remember that when we surrender we
are going to experience growing pains. They’re inevitable.
And if we stay rigid with resistance to the pain, it can break us.
Transformation threatens everything we take for granted. And yet
it will ultimately lead us to joy, courage, commitment and compassion
that we couldn’t imagine before and we didn’t know we
needed to be whole.
From Anger to Eros
In the first step toward healing there must be feeling. If we don’t
feel that connection and the pain this brings, how can we heal?
In today’s world, it’s not only our right to be angry,
it’s our responsibility. The question is, do we act out of
anger or love? That’s what makes the difference. The reason
I feel it’s our responsibility to be angry is that anyone
who looks at the world will recognize that we hurt innocent life,
and bring more children into the world who will be injured. The
anger comes from knowing we have the potential to do it another
way and yet we don’t. Then we let go, and the anger becomes
secondary. I do what I do because of my love, not my anger.
My prayer is that I may be an open heart. When I become angry at
what we’re doing, I take it in and say, “Okay, anger
through love becomes fierce compassion.” Anger is a powerful
energy and I’m all for using energy, whatever form it comes
in, but using it for the good. When at first I got stressed out
in the tree, I’d take a deep breath in and say, “Stress
in and stress out.” I don’t want to lose the passion
of anger. It’s a vital life force. Later I changed that practice
and said, “Stress in, love out,” with each breath. Because
anger through love becomes fierce compassion, I make use of the
energy. I still have passion, but I can look at someone who threatens
to kill me, and my heart melts. I see their injury makes them act
that way. It helps me transform difficult situations.
Eros as Intimacy
Listening to Luna helped me understand how to survive the storms.
People ask me to tell them about her voice. Normally, voices are
how we relate to something that comes from the outside into the
ear. But the information from Luna was coming from within me. Luna
was the mouth of the divine teacher. I think transmission is a good
way of saying it. I’ve always had a hard time articulating
it because we are taught to speak about things strictly from the
human perspective. How do you describe a voice that doesn’t
come from the outside in, but rather comes from the inside, yet
derives from another source?
The book The Secret Life of Plants shows that they have their own
way of communicating energetically. That’s why transmission
is a great word, because it’s more like an energy wave that
conveys information directly into our psyche, if we are open to
Finding Joy Anywhere
People thought I was going to break down when I came out of the
tree. Thirty-six hours later I was in New York City. I find joy
in the challenge to be a living example of transformation. That
to me is the butterfly. If it doesn’t get launched in reality,
it just sits there and moves its wings but it can’t quite
fly. I see a lot of people who go through transformations, but they
get comfortable in the cocoon. It’s a little cramped, but
you know what’s in there.
It’s one thing to learn it, but it’s another to become
a shining example of the divine, as much as possible, in every moment
of every day. It won’t be destroyed by what it encounters.
It will transform it.
I came down from the tree and saw how many people of consciousness
shop at these wonderful Eco-friendly cooperatives. Then they order
a coffee in a to-go cup. I can’t stand it. I look at what
a disposable world we live in. I see in that cup a tree, and I see
in the plastic lid an indigenous culture somewhere being pushed
into genocide from oil drilling, and I see the destructive drilling
in Alaska. People say, “No drilling in Alaska, no drilling
in Alaska”, and then they have their food in a Styrofoam container
and their non-shade, non-organic, non-cooperatively farmed coffee
in a paper cup with a plastic lid.
Courage in daily life means you become an embodiment of what you
know to be true. It’s not enough to know it. We have to be
it in every moment. If we can’t do that, then we aren’t
transformed. Words are great, but if they do not manifest as compassionate
action, they are hollow. A lot of my zest comes in the doing regardless
of the outcome.