The ultimate tree hugger climbs down to tell her story

The Legacy of Luna By Julia Butterfly Hill HarperSanFrancisco 256 pp., $25

For answers to the David Lettermanesque questions one would expect about a young woman who lives for two years in a tree, this should suffice:

Wasn't it cold and wet? Yes.

Were there lots of bugs? Yes.

Didn't she want to come down? Yes, and almost did on more than one occasion.

And finally, what did she use as a toilet? A bucket.

With those questions out of the way, Julia "Butterfly" Hill's account of her life in a giant redwood tree called Luna in northern California is still worth more than passing interest.

It offers a surprisingly candid glimpse into what motivated her record-breaking "tree sit," a taste of why so many people feel so strongly about saving the soft-barked giants, and finally, an answer to the question: Just who is this woman that captured more than her allotted 15 minutes of American-style fame?

Don't look for any particular insight here into how and whether this event will change environmental activism. That verdict is best left to historians and others with a broader view than Hill.

Indeed, if the tree sit has lasting influence, it'll be one of those accidents for which history is famous. Hill presents a convincing case in this book that long-term strategy, political agenda, or personal notoriety had little to do with her story at the outset.

Also, readers unconvinced that trespassing on private property is the right way to fight logging probably won't be changed by Hill's story, though the Pacific Lumber Company, which had its chain saws aimed at Luna, hardly looks like a responsible community member as depicted here.

But as an unexpected and unplanned journey from point A to point B, Hill's story is compelling and has the ring of truth. To understand Julia Hill's journey, imagine a 1990s version of the free spirits that came to California in droves in the 1960s and adopted names like, well, "Butterfly." Add a strong religious upbringing, suspicion of authority, personal trauma, and naivet that is alternately endearing and astonishing, and you have the backdrop to this story.

The daughter of an itinerant preacher, Butterfly spent most of her early life in small town Arkansas. An automobile accident and period of convalescence created, she says, a new dedication to "follow a more spiritual path," which manifest itself in a wanderlust for places with "deep spiritual roots."

Joining a group of friends heading West, Hill found herself in a redwood forest along northern California's so-called Lost Coast.

It wasn't the first time towering redwoods have brought people to their knees. But here, as in other parts of "The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, A Woman, and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods," Hill's account of finding her calling among the trees is as spongy as the springy mulch that covers forest floors. It's not that we doubt her conviction, it's just that a reader will search in vain for many insights beyond nice platitudes.

Nonetheless, sincerity and determination are evident. This book effectively recounts the hardships of extended life in a tree, as well as the anomalies. As Butterfly's fame grows, she spends more and more time on a cellphone, talking with reporters, celebrities, and even the president of Pacific Lumber. But few moments are as rich as the call from the phone company demanding payment and Butterfly's attempt to explain why that will be difficult.

Yet the most revealing aspect of the entire tale is the almost child-like optimism of Butterfly in the face of the elements, the intimidation by the lumber company, and internal rifts even within her environmentalist supporters.

Written while still in the tree, the book's Epilogue brings closure with Butterfly back on terra firma, and the lumber company agreeing to spare the tree.

Yet the story line that will live longest with most readers is how one thing can lead to another and pretty soon you're making history. Or for others, perhaps, just the simple fact of how nice it is to wash your hair regularly.

*Paul Van Slambrouck is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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