On a cold, wet winter’s day in December 1997, a young woman named Julia ‘Butterfly’ Hill climbed a thousand-year-old redwood tree, never expecting that this tree was to become her home for the next two years.
She had travelled to the ancient redwood forests of Humboldt Country, Northern California, a few weeks earlier in search of purpose as she recovered from a serious accident, and was so moved by their beauty that when she discovered they were due to be clear-cut, she felt compelled to protect them.
“When I walked into the redwoods, I walked into a cathedral that was more majestic than any manmade church I’ve ever been in… When I found out what was happening it was a calling I couldn’t turn away from,” says Hill of her first, profound encounter with the ancient forests, some of the oldest and tallest on the Earth.
As she scaled one of the great tree’s towering trunks soon after this initial encounter, with the intention of “tree-sitting” for two weeks, she had no idea that she would spend the next two years amongst its branches.
“I didn’t know that my purpose was activism. I didn’t go in search of a cause; I went in search of a purpose. And the purpose and desire in my heart lead me to the ancient redwoods,” she says.
“I’m Not Coming Down”
High up in the canopy, she lived on a tarpaulin-covered wooden platform supported by a group of activists who had been protecting the tree for months previously. With little more than a sleeping bag, she endured raging storms, the coldest winter in Californian history, ongoing violent harassment and intimidation from the logging company that was determined to clear the area, and days of being hungry.
“If I’d seen what was coming I never would have done it. It would have scared me way too much because my mind would have said ‘that’s not possible, I can’t do that’,” shared Hill of the experience, in a talk she gave in 2010.
Yet Hill had vowed not to let her feet touch the ground until she was sure this tree would not be touched. She kept her promise. On the 738th day of her vigil, an agreement was reached with the timber company that the tree and the ancient redwood forests within a 200ft buffer zone would be spared, for a fee of $50,000.
Demonstrating the Power of Love
Her act became a symbol of inspiration and hope for many in the USA and across the world, demonstrating the power of courage and determination but most of all, of love.
“So often activism is based on what we are against, what we don’t like, what we don’t want. And yet we manifest what we focus on. And so we are manifesting yet ever more of what we don’t want, what we don’t like, what we want to change,” says Hill.
“I didn’t climb the tree because I [was] angry at the corporations and the government. I climbed the tree because when I fell in love with the redwoods, I fell in love with the world. My feeling of ‘connection’ is what drives me, instead of my anger and feeling of being disconnected.”
Activism Inspired by Connection
In finding herself compelled to act in this way, Hill became one of many individuals, seen and unseen, known and unknown, who have responded to potentially destructive situations for Humanity and the Earth with love, and a wish to restore connection.
It is revealing that the linguistic roots of the word ‘disaster’ come from the Greek words ‘dis’ and ‘astrato’, which mean to be separated or torn away from the stars. In other words, to be separated from the whole. (Thank you, Shirley MacLaine, for this insight). Perhaps this is what lies at the heart of any disaster: our loss of connection with life, and with one another?
Hill’s response to the ‘disaster’ of our separateness with love helped her discover a strength she didn’t know she had in the process.
Another moving and potent example of activism inspired by loving connection, and the devastating experience of its loss, is that of an English woman who forgave the man who killed her father.
In 1984, Jo Berry was thrust into a challenging journey of forgiveness and healing when an IRA bomb killed her father. Her decision to try to understand the perspective of the person who had planted the bomb, Patrick McGee, lead her to eventually meet him. Together they engaged in a deep listening process that opened them up to each other’s perspectives and humanity.
“I’ve learnt that beyond every label, every enemy, there is a human being, and [that] it is possible to dialogue and communicate. If Pat had had more choices he would have taken them. I’ve also learned that we are all capable of using violence in difficult, extraordinary times. We can all be that person who hurts another human being,” she says of what she learnt through this experience.
Today, Berry and McGee run a charity, Building Bridges for Peace, which aims to promote peace and support conflict resolution across the world, with loving, non-violent means.
Only Love Can Drive out Hate
“Love knows no violence,” said Indian visionary Jiddu Krishnamurti, who saw all action that truly flowed from love as incapable of causing pain. For Krishnamurti, operating from a state of love was the deepest form of intelligence. “Love and intelligence are inseparable and from this flows action which does not breed pain.”
For civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., too, the power to transform conditions of separation could only come from rekindling connection where it had been lost, with love. “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that,” he said.
Curious about the way in which the structure of our social, political and economic systems has made such ‘loving’ difficult, a group of Silicon Valley-based software engineers set about an experiment in the 1990s.
Their aim was to test what they perceived to be the ‘disastrous’ assumption that human beings are primarily selfish rather than selfless. This assumption, they felt, was promoting principles of scarcity, division and hoarding throughout society today. What would happen, they wondered, if they designed a system that assumed it was our deeper nature to give and to love?
“Economics is built on the premise that people aim to maximize self interest. What happens if you turn that around? What designs emerge if we assume that people want to behave selflessly?” says Mehta.
They began as a small community that operated upon principles of what they called ‘giftivism’: the practice of radically generous acts that change the world. To support the creation of this new system, they placed three ‘constraints’ upon themselves as organising principles: everyone would be a volunteer, their service would be unconditional (in other words, there would be no expectation of any returns including fundraising), and they would focus on small acts of generosity.
“The marker of giftivism is that it is for the 100 percent. There is no enemy. There is no opponent,” says Mehta.
To their surprise and delight, a vibrant ecosystem, known as Service Space, blossomed, and today it is reawakening connection through seemingly small acts of giving across the world in a multitude of ways, as Mehta shares in a beautiful TEDx talk. Through their 400,000 members, they have delivered millions of dollars in service for free.
Inner Transformation is the Furnace of Inspired Giving
What seems common to the experience of every act inspired by or in service of love and connection, however small or large we perceive it to be, is the transformation it evokes in the actor. First and foremost, it requires us to step beyond our own vantage point, and to see from the perspective one or more ‘others’.
“Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Dalai Lama, Cezar Chavez,… they were all practicing giftivism…. Ultimately our inner transformation is tied to the outer manifestation, and all these people recognised that,” says Mehta.
Speaking of her experience living in the great redwood’s canopy, Hill says, “I went through the process that caterpillars go through to become a butterfly. The caterpillar is literally liquefied inside the chrysalis. Most of us want to become the butterfly, but we don’t want to go through what it takes to get there.”
You have to be Shaped and Formed
“I was broken physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. I had to be broken on every level….because… in order for me to be a vessel to be used, I had to have my attachments broken. Because attachments make us solid. You can’t be a true vessel if you’re attached. You have to be emptied out first. You have to be shaped and formed.”
“In the tree I learned everything from how to flow with the storms of life, to how to communicate with people who at first seem different from me, to how to take a stand for love as a way of being in the world.”
Such inner work is required, says Hill, because until we have healed all of the wounds, fears and belief systems within us that create a separation from others and the world, it is not possible for us to truly act from love. “The external wound is a mirror for the internal wound; we need to be doing the internal work of healing the woundedness within ourselves.”
This was Berry’s experience, too. “An inner shift is required to hear the story of the enemy. For me the question is always about whether I can let go of my need to blame, and open my heart enough to hear Patrick’s story and understand his motivations. The truth is that sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. It’s a journey and it’s a choice, which means it’s not all sorted and put away in a box,” she says.
Finding our Tree
Not everyone will be inspired by the beauty of ancient redwood forests, but each of us have felt awe at least once in our lifetime; has discovered something that moves us out of our very love for it, however small or large, transient or permanent. It could be a person, a place, a situation or a feeling.
Not all of us have gone through the pain of losing our father. However each of us have felt the pain of losing loving connection in one form or another, and the ‘disaster’ it symbolizes. Through these experiences of connection and disconnection, life presents us with ongoing invitations to explore what it means to live with more love.
Discovering how to act from love, and indeed what true love is, is rarely clear or easy, and it is this that makes love-inspired activism a spiritual practice for us all.
Healing the Disease of Disconnect
To be moved by love, said 13th Century Sufi poet and mystic, Jalal ad-Din Rumi, means to courageously seek out every barrier that exists within us to its natural expression. It means to discover compassion not only for the ‘other’ but for ourselves, too, for the times when we fail to love as deeply, fully and completely as we would wish, as we inevitably will.
“Every one of us has that potential. I’d say everyone has their own personal tree to sit in,” says Hill, who has founded an organisation called ‘What’s Your Tree?’ to support individuals in this very discovery process.
Today, rather than calling herself an activist, Hill prefers to use the term ‘holistic health practitioner.’ “What would it look like to look at ourselves as holistic health practitioners?… Healing the disease of disconnect through the collective consciousness of Oneness. Every moment, every day” she asks.