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Essential Shifts Interview: Julia Butterfly Hill

Essential Shifts Interview: Julia Butterfly Hill

Visionary: Julia Butterfly Hill

Julia Butterfly Hill is known for her environmental activism, but she is also a deeply spiritual and reflective being. In this dialogue, she reveals her sense that the most important thing we can do is to hold an image of our world as whole, connected, and complete. If we stand in that healing story with enough commitment and joy, as well as the actions to back it up, we are able to magnetically pull us towards that outcome. Her vision involves celebrating our wholeness and healing our woundedness, not through denial but the affirmative power of our intention. Subjects include her life’s journey from an aspiring business maven to accident victim to celebrated environmentalist, the power of being a "joyful vegan," and the importance of demonstrating empowering solutions, such as the conversion of a tour bus into a model of sustainability. She is at once practical in her advice, heartfelt in her commitment to the planet, and thought-provoking in her reflections.

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Institute of Noetic Sciences: Welcome to Essential Shifts. Our guest is Julia Butterfly Hill whom many of you remember. On December 10, 1997, when she was 22 years old, Julia climbed a 180-foot redwood tree. And the rest is a very important part of our contemporary history, as it relates to non-violent direct action in an effort to honor and protect the natural environment, and one person's efforts to heal the rifts between the human and the natural environment. Julia is the author of The Legacy of Luna, and another really important book that I love, One Makes the Difference: Inspiring Actions that Change our World. She is also the youngest person ever to have been inducted into the Ecology Hall of Fame. Welcome, Julia.

Julia Butterfly Hill: Thank you so much.

IONS: Thank you so much. Many people know a part of your story but I was wanting, by way of background, who was Julia before Luna? Where did you grow up?

JBH: Well, I grew up traveling on the road. My father was a traveling preacher, so my formative years were designed around believing that my life was to be about a very specific concept of what God is and to be lived according to that concept. And then the god of money, which is the main god of our industrialized culture, began to infuse my consciousness. And then I thought, "Well, I am supposed to live my life according to that icon of god, the god of money," so when I went to college I majored in business. I co-opened a restaurant when I was eighteen. I sold that business and did many odd jobs, and became a consultant for the restaurant and bar industry, and that was my life--a little bit different than the icon of a tree-hugger that people know me to be now! [laughs]

IONS: And what was the personal aspect of your journey that led you or called you to the West coast and the Headwaters forest?

JBH: In August of 1996 I was designated driver. A friend called me and asked me to come and get her because she had been drinking, and I took a taxi over to her, and we got in her car and we literally only made it out of the parking lot to a first stop when we were rear-ended by a drunk driver. She had a two-door hatchback and he had a Ford Bronco, and he hit us so hard that the stereo broke out of the stereo console and bent around the stick shift, and the steering wheel of the car went into my skull. It took about ten months of physical and cognitive therapy to recover from the damage that happened to my short-term memory and my motor skills as a result of that impact. During that time I started looking at the question between real value and perceived value, and I realized that a majority of my life had been spent chasing after perceived value and as a result I never felt completely fulfilled. I never felt completely actualized as a human being. And there is nothing like a steering wheel in your skull to steer you in a whole new direction. [laughs] So that steering wheel literally and figuratively steered me in a new direction of trying to figure out what is real value, what has my life be a life that has such deep and profound meaning for me that it pulls me out of bed in the morning and makes me joyful and completely inspired to be alive. I didn't know where that journey was going to take me, I was just clear that that was the journey I was going to take. And then two weeks after my last doctor released me from the therapy from the wreck, I had acquaintances who were heading West who needed someone else to go along to help cover the expenses, and having grown up traveling...I enjoy traveling and I had not been able to as the result of having to be in physical and cognitive therapy, so I signed on for the trip. And in California I felt, by some deep intuitive knowing, that I was supposed to stay in California. I had no clear reason why, I just knew I was supposed to--so I gave them some money for the rest of their trip, and said, "Have a good trip," and I stayed in California, and then found out about the redwoods, and a few months later was in Luna.

IONS: I love it. You know context is really important, and I've shared this with you--I kind of pride myself on not reading blogs, and I have to confess that I love yours, and from reading your recent one I have this sense of [you as] a woman of the world in a large global context. You talk about being in south central Los Angeles and Italy and Brazil and Oakland. What is your sense of what is going on in the larger world, and what's your sense of the larger global reality, and what pulls you and calls you in what appear to be all these directions?

JBH: Right. I feel almost as if what's happening in our world right now today is two different stories that have met at the crossroads, and there's the struggle for, 'Will one of these stories prevail, or will we have a transformation of the coming together of these stories,' and the one story is the story of perceived value. We only need look at the stock market to realize that most of our society that we take for granted is based on perceived value. It goes up and down because it's not based on real value--quality of air, quality of water, quality of family life and community life, and health. Those can't go up and down. Those are a real value that remains constant. But the stock market goes up and down because it's not based on real value--it's based on perceived value--and what we see is this conflict between those who have been tricked into believing the story that perceived value is actual value. And we have those of us who are awakening to the remembrance of real value. It's in our DNA. It's a part of the divine spirit that makes us. It's a part of creation. I believe that more and more people, at least from my experience, are reawakening to that deep, deep real value. And then the challenge becomes how to try and live in that value, how to try and live in that way in a time and a world that is not supporting it or encouraging it—and, as a matter of fact, is oftentimes attacking it and making it difficult for those of us who choose to stand in this story, in this way of living.

IONS: And how do you personally find the strength? I was struck by something that was on your blog that says "The Earth speaks. Every day, every moment, every breath and those who listen, find the courage, energy, power and commitment that was not there before."

JBH: We have in our language occasional words that actually mean something that make a difference. In the English language I find myself more challenged sometimes than empowered by it, but occasionally there are things in our language that actually, if we remember what they are based on, actually can teach us something and one of those words is "human nature". We have cut off the nature that we are a part of, and we no longer reflect upon, draw upon, or live our lives through the nature we are a part of, and as a result we are a very sick society. We are disconnected. We are therefore a symptom of this disease, this "disconnect disease." The more I found that I‘m able to take my own personal broken roots and weave them back into the nature that my human self is intrinsically and divinely a part of, the more I find that power and that strength and wisdom that I could never create on my own, but rather it only happens when I reconnect and am an active part of the healing of the world through the healing of myself. That re-rooting process is where that guidance and strength can come from, and continues to amaze me and astound me not just for myself but for others that I meet--seeing people who are doing absolutely extraordinary things. The community down in south central Los Angeles, the farmers there who we've been working with, the people in Brazil who are struggling to just get clean water and education and health care, the incredible people creating magic in the world that I know happens when we re-root ourselves in that connection.

IONS: What was happening in Italy?

JBH: In Italy, there's quite a few things going on there. Number one, there is a growing vegan movement. I am a "joyful vegan", as I call it. I never say that I am just a vegan.

IONS: A "joyful vegan!" I love it!

JBH: And part of the reason I say I am "a joyful vegan" is sometimes when people hear the word vegan they think boring food and a sense of lack, going without. Sometimes there is the perception of "angry activist". But, for me, being a vegan is a joyful gift. The food tastes fantastic. Being able to lighten my imprint on this earth that I am a part of fills my heart with joy. So, the growing vegan movement in Italy, I was there supporting that, and also working to invite people who are part of that growing movement to open themselves up to people who might not necessarily agree on all points, but who can be powerful allies. One of those groups would be the "slow food" movement that's committed to holding onto one of the great and rich traditions of Italy, which is its food, and holding onto it in the face of "fast food" and global corporate agriculture. Sometimes I think this is a challenge for all of us: As we become excited and aware around certain issues, we accidentally become a part of the problem when we disconnect ourselves from other people as the result of our excitement and passion, and then we're actually perpetuating the disease of disconnect. So I was there trying to help come through with another conversation of how do we, instead of using our differences as something to divide us, how do we look at our differences as diversity? And, just as we need diversity in a forest to have a healthy forest, or in a farm to have a healthy farm, this same thing with the human nature. We need the diversity to be strong and beautiful and healthy as a human family.

IONS: I was at a gathering with the Dalai Lama, actually in San Francisco, not too long ago, in which he was really suggesting that one way of healing the divide was through travel, by traveling as you are traveling, in search of family and kindred spirits and being a real part of the cultures and the communities that we visit. I have always wanted to visit Brazil. What are some of the things that attract you about Brazil?

JBH: For me, Brazil is a heart chakra country. In the travels that I've done I notice different chakra energies in different countries, and Brazil and a lot of countries in South America seem to be the heart chakra countries. Lots of celebration, much love, dancing, music, a passion for community and getting together and enjoying life together. It seems, sadly, that the more creature-comforts we have the more disconnected we become to our passions and to our zest for life and to our communities. The more technology we have...sometimes technology can connect us just like it's doing with us right now in this conversation, but there's a point when people then just become reliant on these forms of connection and stop actually meeting with each other face to face, and having dinners together, and dancing together, and singing together. Brazil is so beautiful because people--who have so little in the eyes of those of us of privilege from industrialized cultures--they have so much more than us in the realm of the heart and in the realm of the spirit and in the realm of connection with each other. The other thing that I love about Brazil, and I see it actually in many of my travels all over the world, is that it has some of the best that the world has to offer right next to some of the worst. So you see exquisite forests and jungles in the Amazon, and beautiful waterfalls and rivers and then you go to a place like São Paulo, where I was, where the river is so polluted that there are literal islands of plastic gathered up in the middle of it. It looks like an island but when you get close it's all plastic bottles and plastic bags and things like that. And then you have these people living in the shanty towns in extremely poor communities, and there's a lot of violence, and there's a lot of things that are going wrong, and at the same time you see this heartbeat of humanity rising up, and just taking their lives into their own hands, and creating human community based solutions of empowering themselves to find ways to solve what is really a global human family problem--things like the cleaning up of their water, and sanitation, and education, and healthcare and these kinds of things. So, it's life at its most full on and that can really jar us out of the numbness that I think sometimes comes with our comfortability.

IONS: I am just wondering in terms of the journey – Luna, and the space that it has opened up, and your travels--what do you see as some of the essential shifts required of us, individually and/or collectively, to kind of get us to a point where we can talk about this powerful need for transformation at this critical and very perilous time in human history?

JBH: When I take a deep breath and go inside to think about that question, the first thing that comes to me is that I think one of our biggest challenges is to look at our way of thinking, and see if there might be a way to serve ourselves even more powerfully by ending the myth that there is somewhere to get to--that there is something else that needs to be done, that there is all this brokenness that needs to be fixed, that there is something…. When I check in with my intuitive self and with my spirit and with the world I am a part of, I think part of our healing has to come from just standing and being still and claiming a healed world, claiming a healed humanity, claiming a healed self. So much of what I see, in people who are out working so hard to make a difference in the world and help cause transformation, is I see a lot of hurting and sick people doing that work. There's a piece of ourselves that's afraid to acknowledge our own grief and our own pain and our own out of balanceness, and there is also a part of our self that's afraid to be bold enough to just claim whole, perfect and complete as the planetary condition and choose to stand there and cause our world to meet us there. So I feel like for a lot of our work we stand at the place of wrong/bad/sick/unhealthy/broken and then struggle and work and sacrifice trying to get to healthy/whole/complete. For me there's something scary as all-get-out, but also really powerful to the point it gives me goose bumps, to imagine standing in myself and the world as whole, perfect, complete, beautiful, connected, community, family. And standing there with everything that I have, and powerfully--through prayer, and through actions, and through words--causing and calling the world to meet me there.
IONS: You know I really love and get a lot from the fact that, in your process, which I find is very thoughtful, I feel like what you're engaged in is a deep internal process of questioning, reflecting, and deep listening that you sometimes share out loud with the rest of us. I find that what it does is connect at a very deep place because it so models standing in your truth. All of us are needing to do that, and so I really thank you always and so much for that. And one of the other things that I really relate to is, in the context of your current work and your personal passion, how you live that in the world, creating a foundation like the Circle of Life Foundation to kind of carry forth some of those ideas. There are a lot of websites that I visit, but I love your website! It is very hopeful. I love the range of things that you do there. I particularly like the idea of providing tools, and all of the positive things, the conversations across the divide, and this bus that you have...You do these renewable energy-powered tours?

JBH: We did. We got an old touring bus that had lots of seats in it, the kind that was used to take people to go see tourist sites, and we took it and converted it to be a model of the solution of what is possible in our world. I felt that's so important, now more than ever, because we live in a time and an era that's feeding off the stories of everything that's going wrong. So, fear and violence and cynicism and apathy and overwhelm--these are all great human conditions for making us fantastic consumers. The more afraid we are, the more we buy. The more uncomfortable with who we are, with ourselves, the more we buy. All these things make us fantastic consumers, and as a result everywhere we look, every magazine cover, is based on getting us to feel that everything is wrong and afraid and scary and the things that fix it are superficial. What our world needs is more modeling of the solutions that aren't superficial, but are about what our souls long for, the kind of world we want to live in, having that be available to us to see and be inspired by. So, the bus runs on recycled vegetable oil that we gather from behind restaurants and filter and clean and heat up and literally drop directly into the engine, and run the engine off recycled vegetable oil. It has solar panels that run all the interior appliances--all the appliances have been chosen to be energy efficient. The stove runs off ethanol; the shower is made from tiles that we gathered from old construction sites and from behind tile stores, broken tiles, we reused all of that; we have a gray water attachment system--the water from the sinks is captured on board and used to flush the toilet with; the list goes on and on and on and on. Really we wanted to create something that would show people a myriad of possibilities, and in doing so hopefully to inspire people to look in their daily lives and say, "Where are ways I can make a difference?" An example being the gray water catchment system. Sadly a lot of building codes make it illegal to have that even though that means we waste pure drinking water every day. But one of the things we can actually do is, underneath our sinks, we can open up the pipes and put buckets, and then we can gather that water from our sinks and use it to water our plants or use that to flush our toilet with. I laugh at our stupid moments in history, because it's fun to laugh at our mistakes so that we can powerfully find solutions. I joke that one of our stupid moments is when we chose to start using fresh clean drinking water to flush our toilets with. You know, it's just not one of the most brilliant things we've ever come up with! So there's all kinds of little things that might at first sound troublesome, or, "What's that really going to make a difference?" or, "Oh that's a hippy thing!" But we're part of the problem or part of the solution every moment of every day. Myself and my organization Circle of Life is really inspired at looking for and modeling and connecting people with the solutions.

IONS: And part of what I love is the sense of humor offered on your site. Circle of Life does all of these little quick guides, and one of them is "Peeing Green" and "How to Win an Argument with a Meat Eater". I went on and I love the levity—but, as you were saying, we sometimes stand in the heaviness, so the levity and the joy.... What is it that you're hopeful about? What is hopeful for you?

JBH: Personally, I almost never use the word hope. Number one, if you tell people there is not hope that's an excuse for them not to get off their butts and do anything, and if you tell people there is hope then that's an excuse for people not to get off their butts and do anything! And, either way, the reason I feel the word can be disempowering either way is because it's about something in the future. And we never get the future. All we get is this moment, this breath, this moment, this breath, this choice, this word, this moment. So, if I can at all claim hope, it is what's in this moment, and the people that I see, moment by moment, using their lives as a gift of service to the world they're a part of of that. I find hope when I'm riding the public transportation system in the Bay Area. This one time I saw this older woman get on board, and it was obvious that she'd had a very tough day, and was completely worn out, and the shaking of the BART train system was making it difficult for her to stand, and a young man looked up at her and saw her fatigue, and just stood up without saying a word and offered her his seat and walked to a different part of the train--and it literally made me cry. I don't think most of us are that open to the miracles of the now, the magic of the now--but it made me cry because I, anytime, am so open. I look for magic in every moment. I look for the blades of grass pushing through concrete. I look for and celebrate and honor the teachers who are fighting for all they're worth to protect our beautiful young people in schools, and allow them to be individuals who use their minds, and believe they have more value than just what job they're going to go do when they grow up. I find hope in seeing someone helping an elderly person across the street. The list goes on and on—so, for me, if there is hope, it is not because of something that might happen someday, but rather because of all the millions of myriads of miracles that are happening every single moment.

IONS: Wow. Well, Julia, I, on that note, want to thank you. And as an elder, really, in relation to chronological age...children and babies and grass and nature and rivers and streams all have something to teach. I just want to let you know that you're a person that really inspires me, that makes me really happy to be alive on the planet at this time with you, and that I have deep, deep, deep, deep love and respect for who you are in the world--and I just want to thank you so much.

JBH: Well, thank you for holding that mirror to me and reminding me of my divinity. We need to be those mirrors for each other that allows us to stand in our divinity. So, thank you for reminding me of that.

IONS: Thank you so much...and get some rest!

JBH: [laughs] That's right.

IONS: OK. And we'll be in touch. Thank you, Julia.

JBH: Thank you. Bye-bye.

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