Get On The Bus

Post-hip soccer dad meets supercool eco-star
(Reprinted from Orion Magazine, Jan/Feb 2004)

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.

I ease 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 that harmony.

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 Reservation,.

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.

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 speaker along.

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’ parties start.

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 graders.

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 cool school.

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 water-measuring devices.

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 Divide.

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 out.

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 simply love.’”

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 her speech.

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 feet?

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.

Gary Wockner works as a wildlife ecologist at Colorado State University. His eco-novel, BicycleCowboy.com, was published in 2003. He is donating his writing fee for this article to the "Fieldtrip Fund" for the Lab School for Creative Learning in Fort Collins, the school that his two daughters attend.  


Visit GaryWockner.com
Visit Lab School
Visit Orion Magazine
Visit Circle of Life Foundation
Visit We The Planet
Click to read about BicycleCowboy.com