Back in the 1970s,
a group of physicists suggested that because the world is completely interconnected,
small changes on one side of the planet could create chaos on the other.
Even the gentle flap of the wings of a butterfly could stir up a typhoon
in the South Indian Ocean.
About this I have always been skeptical.
back in my comfy auditorium seat as the lights
dim in the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins, Colorado. A multimedia slide
show begins, narrated by actor-activist Woody Harrelson. Woody is unhappy,
feels like an alien in a culture that surrounds him with bad food,
bad people, and bad politics, and the images on the screen are likewise
disturbing. He longs for “the way things used to be,” when people lived in
harmony with each other and the environment. Near the end of the video, Woody
sits meditating with his back to a tree, trying, I presume, to visualize
A second later, a short multimedia movie starring Julia Butterfly
Hill starts where Woody’s left off. Julia offers a solution to Woody’s
angst, a revolution of environmental sustainability and low-impact living.
Julia is happy, almost evangelical, laughing and hollering as she climbs
the redwood named Luna, hangs out with rock stars and movie stars, and
tells thousands of spectators, “You, yes YOU can make a difference.”
A minute later they are all live! here! on stage together – Woody
(movie star), Julia (eco-star), and Johnette Napolitano (rock star),
aka Concrete Blonde. They are joined by two other local star activists
– biodiesel guru Charris Ford, and Joe Red-Cloud from the Pine Ridge Indian
A product of Julia’s Circle of Life nonprofit organization, the We
The Planet (www.wetheplanet.org) tour was launched as an Earth Day festival
in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on April 20, 2003. The festival featured
music, speakers, nonprofit organizations, and a variety of environmental
displays, art, organic food, and green business vendors. The mission was
simple: to redefine cool. We The Planet sees a broad collusion between
the commercial media, the political system, and corporate business, all
working toward short-term profits rather than long-term environmental sustainability.
Their solution is to create a medialike counterspin that makes sustainability
Cool, indeed. Earth Day performers included Alanis Morissette, Bonnie
Raitt, CAKE, Concrete Blonde, The Coup, De La Soul, and Loco Bloco. Woody
was on hand as were other movie stars, plus activists from the Rainforest
Action Network, Green-Aid, and Global Exchange. By all virtual accounts
(internet and video), it was a cool event, an eco-Woodstock perhaps.
All this coolness was started by a young woman who climbed up and
lived in a California redwood for two years, while the region, then the
nation, and then the world watched. By the time she climbed down in 1999,
she had an international following, a movie-star contingent, and a book
deal that produced a bestseller. For many people in the environmental
movement, Julia Butterfly Hill became a genuine hero; for some, almost
a religious figure.
After the successful Earth Day festival and a September gig in San
Francisco, We The Planet was ready to go on the road with shows in Fort
Collins and Boulder, and then Laramie, Wyoming, and Rapid City, South Dakota.
When that leg is over, they will tour the Midwest. The group travels in
an old bus powered by biodiesel, seeks to connect with the local grassroots,
and eschews major corporate sponsorship.
On September 11, 2003, We The Planet is the kick-off event for the
annual Fort Collins Sustainable Living Fair, and draws in its predominantly
young, eco-leftist participants. Woody and Charris Ford have just flown
in from New York and look tired and harried. Johnette also seems strung
out, and Julia Butterfly is somewhat intense. The five-hundred person crowd
contains twice as many young women as men, maybe thirty children, and a sprinkling
of graying beards, including my own.
Julia is dressed in gray shirt and black pants, her black hair clipper-cut
short and combed flat. As she begins her introduction, she smiles often,
then immediately cuts to the chase with commentary on 9/11 issues. I flinch
a little as she says, without any uncertainty, “Our addiction to the earth’s
resources is what caused September 11.”
For the first ninety minutes, We The Planet offers a politically correct
talk show with Julia as host. At times stern and lecturing, at others slightly
humorous, she steers, guides, and spins the conversation as if she’s been
doing this for years. Some of her brief monologues are patterned after
a political speech, allowing appropriate breaks for applause. It’s obvious
that she has delivered these same lines many times before.
Woody hardly speaks, and when he does it’s usually to make a searing,
funny joke. He seems uncomfortable as he shifts around on the couch and
gapes around the room. Johnette also squirms, but unlike Woody, she wails,
rant, shrieks, and flips her Concrete Blonde hair. Charris Ford says
very little, mostly about biodiesel. The other guest, Joe Red-Cloud, speaks
quite a bit more. His activist work on the Pine Ridge Reservation—hands-on
work with people-in-need on a landscape imperiled—provides solid substance
that contrasts with the star spin of the others on the stage. The conversation
often comes in his direction.
After ninety minutes, Julia opens the floor to the audience, and within
seconds speakers line up at the microphones. The speakers are young, mostly
women, and have an unmistakable earth-muffin aura. Their voices are soft
and melodious, their stories circuitous, and the words “love” and “peace”
are used liberally. Listening and watching, I begin to realize that these
are Julia’s people—local followers of the Julia Butterfly phenomenon—and
that the chance to tell her their stories is a big draw for the show. Like
Julia herself, however, these young women can also spew stringent political
and environmental commentary, and I marvel at their Jekyll/Hyde transformations.
Throughout, Julia plays the moderator role exceedingly well. Never does
she cut anyone off, and only a few times does she jump in and move the
After the speakers finish, Johnette caps the evening with a set of
acoustic melodies that lull me to sleep. When the show ends thirty minutes
later, I am not sure if the audience members now think sustainability is
cool and feel newly eco-engaged. I am dogged tired and have to get up early
the next morning to drive a minivan full of schoolkids, including my oldest
daughter, on an environmental field trip. What I do know is that the spin
and marketing of the evening sat precariously balanced against the mainstream
spin and marketing the group was trying to counteract. And in the middle
of that balance, also precariously, sat Julia Butterfly Hill, spinning and
talking, part eco-Bill Mahrer, part Oprah Winfrey. If only the stage had
had a tree for her to climb.
When I first read about We The Planet’s tour
five days earlier, I started working on a scheme that went something
like this: Hang out with super-cool eco-activists, write cool magazine
article. Over the last two years I’ve written a few of these stories,
but there’s a ten-year blank spot on my resumé during which
I became a parent-breadwinner and did not produce one paragraph of creative
writing. Prior to parent-breadwinner life, I was also an activist. About
seventeen years ago, I would have been one of “Julia’s People,”
except there was no Julia. Now I’m in a kind of post-eco-hip
midlife thing where my bedtime is the same time that the activists’
The tour was an opportunity, and my dormant journalistic eye spied
a few good hooks. We The Planet had a bus—with the obvious reference to
Kesey and the Pranksters—and was planning to visit the very un-hip towns
of Laramie and Rapid City. I was interested in how the show would play
in those right-wing venues, and pictured a sort of New-West-to-Old-West,
Gore-to-Bush, green-to-brown story. I could write it, if I could only,
like Tom Wolfe, get on the bus.
That night I e-mailed and called the tour’s publicity firm but got
no response. The next day at work I placed another e-mail and phone call,
but again no response. On night two, my oldest daughter, Caroline, came
down with a fever and cold, and so I stayed up into the wee hours administering
fever reducer and decongestant. On day three, work got harried and my
daughter was still sick, so my also-full-time-working wife and I took
turns staying home and running into the office. Day four—wife comes down
with said cold, Caroline still at home, no call yet from the publicist.
“Oh, well,” I thought. But when the phone rang at work on Thursday
afternoon, about five hours before the Fort Collins show, and the publicist
said, “Sure. Sounds good. Hop on the bus,” I had a nervous implosion, a
left-brain/right-brain then-and-now, who-I-was, what-I-used-to-be, what-I-could-be
schism that hurt.
Caroline’s environmental field trip was the next day, and I was one
of the drivers. On the day after that both daughters had soccer games,
one of which I was scheduled to referee. I made a phone call home, and my
wife answered groggily. Her cold had sunk in and she was supine on the couch.
I made another few calls trying to find a parent to fill in on the field
trip, but found no takers. As I sat the receiver down, I came to a kind
of acceptance. I would go to the show in Fort Collins, but on the following
day, when the eco-stars got on the bus for Boulder, I wouldn’t join them.
Instead, I jumped on a different bus, this one full of third and fourth
Our caravan pulls away from the Lab School
for Creative Learning at ten a.m., with a small bus in front, my minivan
behind, and a trail of kid-clogged SUVs bringing up the rear. I have three
nine-year-old, giggling, Lab School girls in the back seat, including Caroline,
who is now feeling better. The Lab School is an alternative public elementary
school that focuses on experiential, environmental, and service learning.
Its curriculum is hands-on, its textbooks are the area’s landscapes, and
its projects are the many and varied service opportunities around Fort Collins.
In many ways, this school is the practice of Julia Butterfly’s preaching.
About 120 students attend, the class sizes are fixed at fifteen, and there
are no grades. Every kid knows the name of every other kid, and when the
first bell rings, the principal, Stephen Bergen, stands at the door and
says “Good Morning” and the name of each student as they enter. It’s a
Our field trip leader, third/fourth-grade teacher Karen Koski, has
trips planned for every Friday of the school year, including a couple of
overnighters at nearby national parks. Today, we will visit the confluence
of the Poudre River and the South Platte. Also leading us is a Ph.D. student
from Colorado State University, Angie Moline, whose focus is on water and
stream ecology. Angie has filled the empty spaces of my van with various
Forty-five minutes later we all wade into the mud, mosquitoes, and
weeds at the end of the Poudre and start collecting and measuring. In the
next hour and a half, we capture and identify numerous minnows and insects,
and take two or three replicate measurements of dissolved oxygen, turbidity,
and pH. The results are logged and stored for later comparison to samples
from other spots on the Poudre.
The Poudre River starts high in Rocky Mountain National Park, raging
down Poudre Canyon, through Fort Collins, then out to Greeley and eventually
emptying into the South Platte. One of Karen’s goals for this year is to
have her students view, measure, assess, draw, and write about this river
in as many places as possible. Next week, they will all go for an overnight
camping trip to see Poudre Lake, the river’s headwaters, up near the Continental
After our water-sampling work, we walk over to the bank of the South
Platte where it is wide and beautiful and covered with sandbars. Our job
here is to draw and write. As we sit down, two large white pelicans stir
and take flight upriver. Caroline pulls out her pencil and sketchbook.
A yellow-and-white butterfly lands on her sketch pad and she gives me a
quick, engulfing smile as it slowly moves its wings.
I think I got on the right bus after all.
After we return from the confluence, I head
down to Boulder to catch the We The Planet show at the University Memorial
Center (UMC) on the University of Colorado campus. During the ten years
I lived here I always appreciated Boulder and the university’s staunch
proactive environmental mindset. The town is imbued with activism, swimming
with alternative everything, and if Julia can’t sell it here, she might
as well pack up and go home. This is the Vatican of environmentalism, and
the Glenn Miller Ballroom in the UMC is its main sanctuary. Over the past
thirty years every major environmental figure has spoken here, including
David Brower, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, and a slew of others.
As I look around the overfilled ballroom now, Julia’s audience seems
to be a mix of younger college students, clean, well-to-do-looking thirty-somethings,
and aging eco-hipsters. As seven o’clock approaches fifteen hundred
people eagerly wait for Julia.
The show starts as on the previous night with Woody and Julia’s multimedia
projections, during which the crowd hoots and hollers. A few minutes later
Julia appears to a full round of applause. She’s dressed in head-to-foot
black, has long, dangling, round earrings, and whisks across the stage in
complete control. Her introduction is much more upbeat than last night,
and she makes no mention of 9/11.
Woody, Johnette, and Charris Ford come out to another round of applause,
and the talk show begins. Missing tonight is Joe Red-Cloud, and Julia announces
that the local activist scheduled to fill his role, an African-American
woman from Denver, is also missing. And that turns out to be a big problem.
Joe Red-Cloud offered important substance, and without that kind of real-work-to-fix-real-problems
content the talk show is mostly spin. After an hour, people start filtering
When the microphones are turned over to the audience a few minutes
later, the show seems headed for free fall. A few of the speakers make
comments that have substance, but no one comes near what Joe Red-Cloud offered
the night before. Where Joe talked about housing, healthcare, and alcoholism,
Boulder seems stuck on organic chai tea.
Trying to retain control, Julia moves things along more quickly. After
twenty minutes she announces that there is only time for two more speakers.
The audience is still filtering out, with maybe eleven hundred people remaining.
A young college woman approaches the microphone and asks what she should
do with her life after graduation. Johnette responds with advice about following
your heart, and then Julia fills in with a plug for the organizations that
have display booths out front. More people filter out. Julia Butterfly Hill
is losing Boulder.
Then a second young woman steps to the microphone to ask the last
question, as the crowd continues to melt away. She wants to know how the
activists on stage deal with the anger at the continuing environmental
destruction and how they keep up their spirits amid the never-ending setbacks.
Julia tosses the question to Johnette, who tells how she has trouble controlling
her own anger, and then Johnette throws it back to Julia, who immediately
tosses it over to Woody. Woody squirms in his chair and mashes his teeth and
mumbles a word or two before passing back to Julia, saying, “Julia, I think
you should answer that.” Julia grabs the ball and drives for the hoop.
She begins, “Well, when I was up in the tree, and they started cutting
down trees all around me, the noise of the chainsaws and the trees falling
was just deafening, and…” She takes a deep breath. “I always start crying
when I tell this story.” When she says this, there’s a communal one-thousand-person
whisper-gasp in the audience, as if everyone inhaled and held their breath.
With her voice cracking and a few tears rolling down her cheeks, she continues.
“And I was so angry that I screamed and cried.” The audience still hasn’t
exhaled. “And that was when I realized that love was the only rational
response, and from that moment on I decided to just love. ‘Julia, you must
The very nanosecond she says the last “love,” the audience erupts
into applause and lurches to its feet. I look at Johnette, who thrusts
her fists in the air over her head as the applause thunders through the
ballroom, and then I look over at Woody, who has a huge, just-scored-an-assist
grin on his face. And so it is that Julia Butterfly flaps her wings and
a roomful of people explodes with energy.
For two days leading up to the Boulder show,
I'd been having phone conversations with Sarah, We The Planet’s publicist,
to try and schedule an interview with Julia, who will be back in Fort Collins
from about eleven a.m. to two p.m. the next day for a brief rally at the
Sustainable Living Fair. I have my youngest daughter’s (also named Julia)
soccer game at eleven, which I am scheduled to referee, Caroline’s soccer
game at one, and Julia has to be delivered to a birthday party at two.
To squeeze journalism into the double-soccer-plus-birthday-madness we decide
that I will try to hit the fair with my Julia after refereeing her game
but before her party, and my wife will cover Caroline’s game.
As we get out of the car near the fair, things don’t get simpler.
My Julia twisted her ankle during her game and it is stiffening up, so
I hitch her onto my back and we go looking for food and a place to sit
down for fifteen minutes. We find organic food and a patch of grass, and
then hobble over to the main stage where Julia Butterfly is just finishing
When she leaves the stage, it's one-forty, which means I have about
fifteen minutes to get in a few questions. No sooner do I head in her
direction than a throng of her followers do the same. As I wait in line,
I work through the things I'd like to ask her. Like, what does all that
starry spin have to do with making a difference in the world? Over at the
Sustainability Fair, the focus is on substance: how to do this, how to
make that, how to save the planet. This on-the-ground activism isn't very
cool; it's often dirty, gritty, and uncomfortable. It consists of ordinary
people doing above-ordinary tasks—such as sitting in a redwood tree for
two years. After all, isn't that the substance that got Julia Butterfly
Hill where she is, and that brought the dwindling Boulder audience to its
The people in line in front of me move slowly forward, and Julia Butterfly
listens to each of their stories with total patience. It’s an odd scene,
almost religious. Several hold their hands out in prayer and bow slightly
as they meet her, others cower and quiver, yet others offer a personal rant.
Many give her tokens and messages of gratitude. By the time I reach her,
she has collected several CDs, two amulets, three scraps of paper containing
internet addresses, and one apple.
My first words to her are, "You need a backpack to carry all these
mementos." My words are a little sarcastic, but her response is all earnestness.
She seems to cherish each memento and follower, and, well, to "simply love."
And so there I am with my Julia clinging to my back, Julia Butterfly
in front, and a number of questions I could ask. But sandwiched between
these two Julias, I feel a certain confluence of energy and ask the
only question that now makes sense: "Do you ever work with children in elementary
schools?" She answers that she does and mentions a few of her experiences.
I then briefly describe the Lab School for Creative Learning and ask if
she might possibly visit and meet with the students the next time she is
in town. She smiles, sincere and spinless. “It's possible,” she says, and
gives me a card with the phone number of her booking agent. A second later,
one of the tour’s handlers whisks her away to another event.