One of the most special aspects of being part of this university community is that I am free – and even encouraged – to engage with fearless, brilliant, passionate people that have the ability to hold up a mirror to me and let me see what I can find. On Tuesday night I had the opportunity to meet someone that I’ve admired for several years, but whose path I had never imagined that I would cross. Yet, there I was, surrounded by the intimate yet energetic buzz within the library of Hart House, as Julia Butterfly Hill carefully unfolded stories from the 738 days she spent living in a 1,500 year-old Redwood tree to defend it against loggers in Humboldt County, California.
Anyone with the tenacity, patience, and love to commit to anything for 738 days is someone who I believe has a lot to teach us. Even more so for someone who does so in spite of gunshots, intimidation, violent storms, and existential uncertainty at an age barely older than most undergraduates. I wanted to know how Julia knew that this is where she belonged – how she knew to what her life was supposed to be committed. I was surprised by her answer.
“We have to stop being so attached to outcome,” Julia tells us, “because if I didn’t let go of my concerns for what would happen in the future, I wouldn’t have made it.” She reminds us that no one grows up intending to spend 2 years living in a tree – that instead, our responses to what life chooses to put in our path make all the difference in the paths that we will one day take. Her reverence and gratitude for the present moment overcomes everyone in the room. Before speaking to us about her experiences, she leads us through a guided meditation followed by 20 minutes of documentary film footage about her 42nd day in the tree. As observers, we are forced to be both active and present. I am gradually forced to stop worrying about my overdue paper, about writing this article, and about all of those tiny things about myself that I really wish that I could fix.
“Who we are is who we are supposed to be,” she tells us.
I stop dead in my tracks. It’s like she can see inside my thoughts, but of course, she can’t. Still skeptical, I start defending myself in my mind. I’m not one for new-age, the-world-is-made-of-rainbows-and-unicorns, “be the change” types of sentiments. Listening to too many stories of how 3 days in Africa as a volun-tourist has radically changed someone’s life has made me put up walls to motivational speakers. But then she reaches me.
“The thing is, we could all become butterflies, but most of us are too afraid to liquefy. When a caterpillar enters its cocoon, it must turn itself to liquid before it can be reborn.”
Many of us are too afraid to retreat and melt down all of our prejudices, beliefs, and assumptions, to form anew. We’re too afraid to take all of those things that we think define us – be they sexual orientation, GPA, political affiliation, social position, past experiences, or broader cultural understanding – and let them go for long enough to see who we are in this moment. Who would I be if I took away the safety of routine? How far would I go to defend something that I believe in?
Laughing, she tells us that when she was in the tree, all reporters could ask her was what she missed most from living on the ground. As soon as she got down from the tree, however, all they could ask was what she missed about being in the tree. “Stop missing things!” she tells us. “Nature isn’t sustainable, it is regenerative. So how do we fill up our hearts again?”
At the end of the presentation, students were encouraged to write our own individual passion and purpose on a leaf to be put on a large paper tree within Hart House. Maybe all of these passions scrawled across paper leaves are those which can regenerate us; maybe they are the things that can fill up our hearts again. I put up a leaf of my own, but was still uncertain about what I wrote.
I brought a second leaf home, in case I am ever ready to liquefy.