As I wait for my call to go through, I realize I'm calling a celebrity. Celebrities are people I try to avoid, and normally I don't have to try very hard. There aren't too many in the circles I run in, unless they wander in by accident and get a pie in the face. Julia "Butterfly" Hill is one of a stranger breed, an activist celebrity. Starting in the winter of 1997, she spent two years in a 200-foot-tall redwood, amidst deadly storms and murderous loggers, in a bid to halt the clear-cutting of a Californian forest.
The tree-sit is an old tactic of forest defenders, but Hill was soon treated by the media as though she'd been the first to think of it. No doubt news anchors were also surprised to learn that forests existed at all. As it turns out, I don't like talking to celebrities. It requires that I ask questions that make me cringe. "I call celebrity a disease," says Hill - "celebrititis. It's what makes people think someone is more special because they're in the press. I try to leverage it for the issues I care about."
That's more than I can say for any other celebrity I know of. "This was never just about one woman and one tree,' she says. I guess I missed that part in her book The Legacy Of Luna: The Story Of A Tree, A Woman, And The Struggle To Save The Redwoods. Nonetheless, here I am writing an article about her. And could that be my foot I taste? Because Hill is lending some of her spotlight to an issue that isn't getting the coverage it deserves.
On June 19, Hill will speak at Bloor Street United as part of a Grassy Narrows Solidarity Coalition event (before joining the anarcho-techno Om Festival in Killaloo and then heading to the reserve, near Kenora). The idea is thatpeople will come to hear her but stick around for Steve Fobister's talk on the logging blockade that's been going on in his community. Abitibi Inc. is set on clear-cutting the land around Grassy Narrows. The media is starting to pay more attention, and it's all happening within the familiar hierarchy: native community does something, non-natives start a solidarity coalition, coalition brings in A Personality. People recognize Personality and perk up for a moment. Coalition hopes some of them will remember their name.
"I can't come in as a person from America and say, 'I have all the answers,' says Hill, who spent her childhood touring with her itinerant preacher dad. "But part of what I've planned is to talk about the experiences I've had as an activist."
It's at this point that I realize that, book deal notwithstanding, Hill isn't like most celebrities. She seems to be a lot like me. She goes to protests, she does workshops, she reduces and reuses. She's proud to be that weirdo who brings her own container for takeout. It's an argument for the healing power of ecological convictions that someone could wear the One Ring and still be recognizable as a peer.
Except no one I know has a publicist, and I've never expected remuneration for a workshop. Organizers of the not-for-profit Om Festival are actually paying Hill $4,000 and covering her flight from California. Everyone else facilitating a workshop is taking free admission as payment, and many will hitchhike up. It's true none of us sat in Luna, but neither has she for the past few years. I'm not implying that Hill doesn't put the money to good use. "That's how I juggle it," she says, "doing enough things that give an honorarium so I can turn around and give right back." But Omies say she threatened to cancel when informed they could only afford $4,000 Canadian instead of U.S. Maybe the rest of us should have held out for a few riders: "I expect a half-ounce of herb at my tent every night.'
When we're hard-pressed to support our own with bail money, I wonder if a $4,000 rent-a-media-darling should really be written off on the revolution's expense account? Still, it must be tiresome to listen to activists who are always trying to get attention slag you when you do. I'm really going to enjoy her talk.