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June 6, 2006

Up a tree: World’s most recognized tree-sitter is coming down to Louisville

When she answers the cell phone, Julia Butterfly Hill is high in a walnut tree in South Central Los Angeles. The tree is part of a 14-acre urban farm, the largest in the country, set smack in the heart of a warehouse district. Birds chirp audibly in the background, conjuring an admittedly weird vision of urban-rural utopia.  Hill — whose two-year residency atop an ancient California redwood in the late 1990s stopped it from a planned logging and also thrust her into a spotlight for the power of rugged, unflinching individualism — has been in the tree for more than two weeks, defending the farm from an eviction notice. The city gave over the land to the L.A. Regional Food Bank a number of years ago after a deal to build an incinerator there fell through. But the city retained the right to boot the farmers, about 350 of whom who derive sustenance and work from the ecologically diverse spat of green. LA decided to do because the developer who now owns it is ready to build. That is, unless the farmers can raise the money to buy the farm — just more than $16 million.  That’s essentially why Hill is committing her first tree-sit since saving “Luna,” the famous redwood. She’s brought along Joan Baez, John Quigley (also an accomplished tree-sitter), Daryl Hannah, Ben Harper, Laura Dern and Danny Glover, as well as hundreds of supporters. They’ve raised money, lots of it (although she won’t reveal the exact amount), and they’re close to hitting the developer’s mark. It’s just that his deadline for payment was in May; thus, all the controversy. If she comes down from the tree in time, which her press rep says she will, she’ll be in Louisville tomorrow for a speech, sponsored in part by Louisville’s Cultivating Connections. Here is a bit of a conversation with Hill from last Wednesday evening.LEO: Can you tell me about what you’re up to right now? Julia Butterfly Hill: I am high in a walnut tree on a 14-acre urban working farm in South Central Los Angeles. LEO: What are you doing there? JBH: I’m here because this farm has been feeding over 350 families for 14 years, also providing local, organic, traditional, medicinal herbs and foods to this community, and the city sold the land out from underneath the farmers to a developer, and the farm now faces eviction. I am here helping to raise awareness around what’s happening here and stop the eviction and protect this farm permanently. It’s the largest urban farm in the entire country, and it’s happening right in South Central Los Angeles, a place that people would never imagine something like this happening. LEO: I was actually a little surprised to read about its location. I also saw that there’s some question as to who has a right to the land, who owns the land. It seems a little bit confusing. JBH: It is a long and sordid history, and where we’re at right now is, we’re working like mad to hold off the eviction and buy time in order to raise money to buy the farm. Every day we’re raising money, and today is another day that we’re still here. We’re also having to work a lot on the political level, because there are many things going on behind the scenes politically that make it very challenging to get this area protected. LEO: At the city level, city council?JBH: Yeah. The mayor has come forward and verbally stated his support, but hasn’t actually done anything else. Every time he’s called on it, he points fingers at everybody else and says stop picking on me, but he actually hasn’t come forth with any money of the city’s or of his own. And then the area supervisor for this district is Jan Perry, and so far she’s been pro-development/anti-farm, and so she’s really been difficult as well because she’s the representative of this district.LEO: So how long have you been up there? JBH: The tree-sit started nine days ago. LEO: And how long are you going to stay? JBH: My commitment is to see this farm protected, and it’s a day-by-day commitment. The threat of eviction looms. At this point, the sheriff can legally come in at any moment and evict, so part of what we’ve been doing, including myself, has been having conversations with the sheriff’s department trying to engage them in the community process and let them know that this isn’t just a squatters’ camp, that we’re actually involved in raising the money to buy this land back. So it’s literally moment-by-moment, day-by-day. LEO: How much money have you raised? JBH: There’s a huge portion that we’ve raised from some various sources who, for their own reasons — I’m not sure why — won’t allow us to talk about it publicly in the press, which has been challenging for us. But let’s say we’ve raised a significant amount, and we’re continuing to raise significant amounts every single day. We’re well on our way to having the money necessary to buy this land back, but we are also needing people to step up and support from all over. We’re literally getting donations in from Sweden, from Germany, from France, from Italy — people all over the world see why this place is so important. So we’re actually encouraging people, because we’ve been fundraising from higher-level donors, but we’re also relying quite a bit on the grassroots fundraising. We feel like working on both angles is what’s going to make sure we raise the money in time to get this area protected. LEO: I read that it was about three-quarters of the total. You need $16 million, right? JBH: Currently that’s what the developer is asking for, yes, $16 million. There are conversations going on with the developer, really encouraging him to because we’ve made such significant progress. When I got here 10 days ago there was only $6 million raised, and we’ve raised an extensive amount in nine days. They raised $6 million in a month, and we’ve raised a huge portion in nine days. In the beginning he was like, “Stop talking to me about coming down on my price because nobody else was stepping up.” But we’ve been working so hard, and we’ve been blessed by people all over, literally. Five dollars, 20 dollars, 50 dollars, 5,000; every level of giving has been happening. Whatever people are able to give they’re giving. And it’s kind of moved us forward. I’m standing in the commitment that he can choose to be a hero as well in this story, and come down on his price. Ultimately he’s the only one who can choose that. I would love for him to be a hero for this story, along with the farmers and along with all the people who donated money and can say they were a part of making history. LEO: It seems like when you come to a situation like this, there’s a certain amount of leverage that you bring, that you clearly attract a lot of attention, and by leverage I mean that now, if the city doesn’t react in a positive way to this, it’s sort of a public relations catastrophe. Do you think that’s accurate? JBH: Well, I certainly bring things into the equation that were not here before, that’s for sure. Part of what I’m blessed to have been able to bring is calling people in the celebrity world who I know have high levels of integrity and commitment, who I knew would really get why this is so important for our country and would step up. These are celebrities who everybody hits up all the time, and so I was clear I was asking people who would really, really get how amazing this farm is and that it’s so much bigger than just this farm. If this can happen in South Central Los Angeles, it can happen anywhere. And the long-term strategic vision for this farm includes an ecologically designed community center, an outdoor learning center and cultural gathering space where music and cultural gatherings and religious ceremonies can happen to support the community, all in a perma-culture designed outdoor living space. The long-term vision is going to be solar-powered. This is literally going to become a place where people travel from around the world to learn about what they can do in their communities.  So I was able to call Daryl Hannah the actress, Ben Harper the musician, and Joan Baez the musician, because I knew they would get it and want to support. Every one of them immediately said yes and completely rearranged their schedules in order to be here. Daryl’s been here non-stop since she got the message. She was so inspired that she completely cleared her schedule and hasn’t left. Tomorrow Danny Glover is coming and Amy Smart, both actors. Danny Glover’s well known for his stand around social justice issues. I’ve been able to not only leverage the attention and awareness around me but the people I know who have even more clout than I do. I’m really blessed that an entire team of folks have been stepping up. LEO: So are they all up there with you? JBH: People keep coming and going. Especially with people who are celebrities, they have a lot of commitments. What’s amazing is like, Ben Harper was in Australia when I called him, and he flew back, got in I don’t know what time early in the morning, came very early the next morning, and flew out the next morning. So he literally came back for a day just to be with us. And Danny Glover is doing the exact same thing tomorrow. People are completely rearranging their schedules in order to be here. Joan Baez had a two-day warning and completely cleared her schedule and was here for three days, was gone for a few days and came back again. It’s so inspiring to people that people with huge commitments are literally moving mountains to be here. LEO: So who’s up there with you right now?JBH: John Quigley, who’s known especially well in California but some outside of California for living 72 days in an old oak tree in southern California that came to be known as “Old Glory.” He’s actually the one, he and a young man named Travis who’s extraordinary, are the ones who set up the tree-sits and the platforms in the tree. And then Daryl Hannah has been coming up and down into the tree many times a day. Michelle Shocked, the musician, came to visit today as well, will be coming back tomorrow and is probably going to climb up. We turned the tree-sit into what is called a community watchtower, because we wanted it to be more than just about myself and John Quigley and a tree. We wanted it to be about this community that we’re here to shine a light on. From this community watchtower you can see most of the garden as well. So we did it, number one, for an immediate community watchtower because we can see if the sheriff comes and we can see what’s happening on the perimeter, but also our commitment was to grow awareness so that the idea of community grew. That’s what’s happened now: people all over the world are a part of the community who are watching over this farm and wanting to see it protected. Because that’s our commitment, we’ve really been doing everything we can to bring new people up and train them and have them have the experience and then go back down on the ground and become emissaries for the farm. LEO: I saw a quote from you recently where you were lamenting the fact that it takes a human-interest angle to get the media interested in anything, and I actually agree with and would also lament that. Do you ever wonder if your presence or the presence of big-name celebrities actually eclipses the attention paid to the problem? JBH: I would never show up somewhere where that was the case. Like I said, when I got here 10 days ago, there was almost no media coverage at all. At that point, with the eviction notice served, the sheriff would’ve been in here by now and evicted people if it hadn’t been for us here. So I would never come in somewhere where I felt the attention around me would eclipse the process happening. I only show up to places where I feel my coming can support what is happening in a community.  The challenge you’re speaking to is very true, because of course they focus more on the human-interest angle than the issue, but we don’t have the kind of money it takes to buy the PR that we would need to get the issue out there. And that’s just the challenge that we live in in today’s predominantly corporatized media world. But I am highly sensitive to that. I’ve been asked to do other tree-sits since coming down from Luna and I’ve never done any of them because I felt that it would just become a circus. I’m not about attention on me. I’m willing to deal with it if it’s going to help make a difference with the issue I care about, but in a perfect world, I would never have to do an interview again. Seriously, I would work behind the scenes, which is what I love doing the most. But the reality of, we need attention to make a difference on the issues we care about, I’m willing to step up when I feel I can make a difference. But I’m absolutely, I have not done other tree-sits when I’ve been asked because I wasn’t interested in media that was going to eclipse the issue, and so I’ve had to decline. This was the first one that I felt like, because of its ability to leverage the community in this one, that we could step in and really help, really create a safety barrier.  In ecological terms, it’s called a buffer zone. Isolated ecosystems need buffer zones to deal with things like threats of fire and disease and drought. I was very clear that this was an opportunity I could come in and leverage. The contacts I had to create a buffer zone to protect what is an unbelievably thriving ecological system in the warehouse district in South Central. There’s birds chirping right now, butterflies flying around, all kinds of insects, lizards, squirrels, in the warehouse district. You go half a block in any direction, and it doesn’t exist anywhere else. LEO: I’m getting this fairly amazing mental image right now. JBH: Yeah, it’s mind-blowing. You can’t believe it when you come across it. LEO: I think that the environment at-large is becoming more of an en vogue issue now, particularly in America. I think it’s pretty accurate to say that a lot more Americans aren’t only aware of basic environmental issues, but also cognizant — hopefully — of how they can personally address those issues. Do you agree with that? JBH: I do agree that the numbers are growing, and partly due thanks to celebrities. Al Gore’s film is out right now, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and it’s having record sales at the box office. He’s leveraging the attention around him. I think that’s actually making a huge difference. More and more celebrities realize they need to get out of their comfort shell and speak out on issues. That sways public opinion. And, of course, at the same time, corporations are spending ever-more dollars to impress upon people the need to consume. Consume instead of care. We have replaced authentic care in our society with consumerism. That’s the challenge we face every day. So yes, the awareness and the action is growing every day. Especially with what’s happening in Iraq right now, and now what’s happening with the immigrant issue, it’s people who were previously — a woman came the other day who was, I think she was in her 70s, and she had voted for Nixon. Now she’s out here working on issues like this and doing a peace brigade on her corner block every day to stop the war in Iraq. That’s a pretty big switch. This is, we’re living with both worlds happening at the same time, and that’s part of why again I say I’m willing to go in the media when I feel it will make a difference, because it’s one of the places we have to get a message that’s about something other than consumerism out there. Especially with messages like this, because a lot of the message that makes it in the media is fear-based, and when people are afraid, they like to shop. It makes them really good consumers. So any opportunity we have of getting an inspiring message out there is so critical to people coming alive again. LEO: I like the idea that you have these two separate cultures proliferating at the same time. Do you think there’s a tipping point in the near future on either side? JBH: Well, every single day we’re tipping it more and more on the side of protecting the farm, and the threat of eviction looms, so it’s literally, “Can we hold that eviction off long enough?” We’re literally trying to buy time, working every angle we know in order to raise the money to buy the farm. That’s the strategy. And every day we’re raising more, every day we’re having powerful conversations with the people we need to be having conversations with. At the same time, the mayor still has not stepped up with any financial commitment, and the city of Los Angeles hasn’t. He has this commitment to have a million trees in Los Angeles because there is such a lack of green space, and there’s 500 trees here that the farmers planted. We were like, “How about starting your program here? They already planted 500.” There’s a green map of Los Angeles that shows all the green spaces, and this farm isn’t even on it. LEO: Really?JBH: It’s one of the largest urban parks in the Los Angeles, and it’s not even on the green map. They’ve completed disassociated South Central, and have disclaimed it as a community that has a heart and a life-vital system happening here. We’re up against some big stuff, but at the same time we’re swaying public opinion and raising money more and more as the days go by. That’s part of why I’m fasting, not eating, as a prayer that we’re able to tip it in our direction and save this irreplaceable farm. LEO: You’ve been fasting since you’ve been up there? JBH: I’ve been fasting for 16 days. LEO: Oh wow, I didn’t know that. JBH: Yeah. LEO: So one last question: What are you going to talk about if you come here? JBH: (laughter) Since this isn’t a new development, I’m sure I’ll weave this story into what’s happening in the communities there. I’ve never written a speech. I really share from the heart, and I really try and have an interactive experience, so that the people who come have an experience, that they leave feeling like their time was honored. I recognize that in our crazy, busy world, people’s time is a sacred and precious resource, and a dwindling resource. I’m clear that I’ll be leaving them with the message that it’s about recognizing our individual power: What do we have to contribute? Where do we need to step up in our lives? Where are we willing to test our own boundaries and our own limits? And then how do we join that? How do we find creative, positive ways to build community?This is such a perfect example of that. This is the most diverse community imaginable happening right now. We have kids of all ages. We have people of all ages. We have people of all different socioeconomic backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, religious backgrounds. We had an interfaith service the other day so that everybody’s religion here could be honored, and we ended up having two rabbis, a priest, an abbot, a Methodist minister and an interfaith minister, all in this one service. This is diversity, coming together. This is what’s possible for our communities and our world — that we can actually grow the idea of what community means, and reach out across perceived barriers. That’s how we win the victories that our planet and our bodies and our communities are asking for. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com