Surviving the Storm: Lessons from Nature

by Julia Butterfly Hill

I didn't come from a background of activism, but when I first saw what was happening to the ancient redwoods in California, I fell to the ground and started crying and immediately got involved. It changed my life. Everyone thinks, when they hear I'm the poster child of tree huggers, that I must be a hand-core radical extremist, whacko, granola-munching, you name it—all in capital letters, with quotes. But, I was just dumped in the deep end of the entire movement—not just tree-sitting, not just forest issues, but the whole social, environmental, and consciousness movement—and said to myself: Better swim or you're going to drown! So I started learning how to swim.
Along the way I learned: by watching and talking, by asking questions, and by listening over and over during the 738 days that I sat in the ancient spreading branches of Luna. I saw how each different tactic is used and why its being Used. I realized that the best tools for dismantling the machine are the ones the mechanics are using to keep it running. I saw very early on that the mechanics in this situation are corporations, corporate media, and the government—all in a kind of collusion together. They say only a little bit, and usually a majority of what they say is skewed so that the participant on the other end (whether they're watching, listening, or reading) doesn't get the truth. And if you don't have the truth, then you cannot make an informed decision. And if you don't have an informed decision, then you cannot take a conscious act. And if you do not take a conscious act, then you're part of the annihilation of the gift of life, period.
I saw that some of the tactics activists were using were not working, because they weren't using the tools of the mechanic. They were going out there and sitting in trees. They were getting beaten up, killed, or thrown into jail with ridiculous charges by cops who pepper sprayed them. But nobody except the local community knew they were out there.
It was kind of like preaching to the choir. And we need to do that to inspire. I spend a lot of time preaching to the already converted because it hurts to care in today's world. It's easy to go numb and tune it out, whether you're 15, 25, or 50. But we still need to care, and to do that we need truth and inspiration, information and hope—that gives us the tools to take conscious actions toward positive change. At the same time, though, we must utilize the tools of the mechanics (who are trying to keep the machine running) in order to take it down. Otherwise, it's like trying to use a hammer to turn a screw.
I was in a situation with Luna where I had to learn to listen to nature and respect it, or die. My life was on such a precipice the entire time I was up there. It was just really fragile in so many ways. The first three months were so hard that I was praying to die. I didn't want to hurt that bad anymore. And yet at the same time I didn't want to give up. But, when death did start to come, I started praying for life. I was constantly on this emotional roller coaster—spiritually and physically. It was one assault after the other.
One day, they were cutting down trees all around me, and I started crying and hugging Luna. I was crying because I felt ashamed to be in white skin. I felt ashamed to be part of a race of people who perpetuated genocide thousands of years ago and have now made it our mission to perpetuate genocide on the rest of the planet and life in all its forms. It was eating me alive from the inside out. I was so angry and so hurt and ashamed, and I held onto Luna and was crying and apologizing over and over, saying: I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.
When I finally sat up, I realized I was covered in sap. Climbing around in Luna before, I had gotten a little bit of sap on me, but I had never been covered like I was this day. I realized that sap was pouring out from all over her, actually pouring. I could see the sap flowing, which I had never really seen before, and it hit me: this was Luna communicating her grief. Sap is just like grief. It's not something you can wash away; it clings to you and becomes a part of who you are. And it was then that I realized nature was communicating to me. (Later on, people sent me scientific proof that sap is one of the ways trees communicate!)
I started paying attention. I started listening and getting answers from everything—from Luna, the birds, the bears, the shapes of the pine needles. Everything became my teacher when I opened up. My relationship with Luna grew. I realized that Luna has been communicating with humankind for 1,000 years, and we just forgot how to listen. But I learned how to listen, and from that moment on everything started coming to me. Sometimes, I'd have to get beaten over the head a little bit before I'd go: Oh yeah, thank you. What are you trying to tell me? My connection with Luna and my connection with nature is what kept me going, kept me alive, helped teach me the vital lessons I needed to learn when I was about to give up or make a very big mistake. I'm forever thankful for that.
One of the lessons I learned and something that I use a lot now is how to survive a storm. I nearly died up there, in the worst winter storms recorded in the history of California. The trees taught me that the way to make it through those storms (and the storms of life) is to stay rooted and centered but not rigid. The trees and branches that try too hard to stand strong and straight are the ones that break. The only ones that make it through are the ones that know to bend and flow and let go. So, I've been using that now in my life. I use it when I'm being bar-raged by the media, by grassroots activists, by mainstream community, by everything. I just bend and flow when I see the wind coming; I loosen up and get ready to get blown, and then I kind of flex back into place. And I'm ready to get up the next morning and do it all over again.
The legacy that I left behind was a vision of a better world. We protected a grove of old-growth forest. And we left a living embodiment of what that vision of a better world is all about: a world where the last of our ancient and old-growth forests and wild places are protected. A world where the watersheds we're all a part of are protected, even if we live in LA, Chicago, Detroit, or New York City. All those places that look nothing like nature anymore are actually a part of a watershed, and that watershed is the nature that beats its pulse underneath the asphalt and the concrete and steel. That watershed is our lifeblood, what keeps us alive.
To live a life of service for a better world is a legacy that doesn't disappear. It's an imprint, and that imprint can be negative or positive, depending upon the actions and choices we make every single moment of every single day. I have to tell you the coolest people I've ever met, young and old, are the ones who are out there giving their life for a good cause. They glow more; they're the most beautiful, magnificent, powerful people I've ever seen. They're much more powerful than the richest person and more beautiful than any model, because their beauty and power resonates from deep within the life force all the way through their body, and shines out. I've never wanted to kneel in front of a model or an actor or actress or a corporate billionaire, but I want to bow myself before people who are activists or who work for the common good. That's honor. Money is not honor. Doing something of real value with one's life is honor.

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