Creative Nonfiction

This story is inspired by the true story of Julia ‘Butterfly’ Hill.

CW: a bit of language


He said you were a willful child. Homeschooled in a thirty five foot camper van, a daughter bookended by sons. You explored the campsites, ran barefoot through silvery streams, hefted firewood, and scaled the most lithe of limbs.  When you were six, a butterfly, iridescent as the eye of a peacock feather, perched on your finger during a family hike, and lingered the entire afternoon.  You were Julia Butterfly now.  

Father was an itinerant minister in those days.  Preaching reliance on God; you loathed dependance on strangers.  The mandatory goodwill of it all.  Hand me down clothes, gas station directions in every new town, accepting the endless campsite invitations for dinner, if you wanted to eat.  Father would offer to speak, or sing, or pray in return.  You felt only shame at the lack of a tangible offering.  “God provides,” he would recite.  But it sure felt like the Smiths, and the Walters, and the McCarthy’s were doing all the providing.  Why couldn’t your family offer to bring the side dish, a pack of sparklers, or water balloons?  “Blessed are the meek,” he often chanted. “For they shall inherit the earth.”  Truth be told, you didn’t care to inherit another damn thing.

After you graduated, you worked ninety hours a week in a restaurant.  You rose from waitress to manager.  You promised yourself independence and self reliance.  To earn, and save.  Spend, and give, but take from no one.  

At twenty two, you were sober but your friend was not.  You shepherded her into the Civic and headed east towards the rising sun.  A drunk in a Bronco plowed into you from behind.  No tire marks.  Neither of you had seen it coming.  The force pushed you into the steering wheel, piercing your skull.  Now, ten months later, you’ve learned to walk and speak again. You feel wholly reborn.

Now, you can laugh and say the steering wheel knocked some sense into your skull.  “The universe has gifted me more time.”  And it’s not a tangible offering at all.  You freely accept both lesson and gift.


You begin again, on the west coast. At a reggae music festival, you meet your first activists, from a movement called Earth First.  They are not impressed by you.  You do not boast a resume of protests, sit-ins or walk-outs.  You cannot lament the cost of fines, of bail, of jail with them.  You don’t  even tack underground newspaper clippings to the public library bulletin boards, or leave tracts in restrooms.  But you are hungry for a purpose, so they share their’s with you.  

  As you stand beneath them for the first time,  you drop to your knees in awe.  No, reverence.  The virgin redwood grove is a living cathedral. Millennia old, ceilings two hundred feet high. Mist hangs like incense in their branches.  Something awakens in you.

“They’re not protected,” Felony says matter of factly.  You don’t know her real name, only forest names protect your identities here. She stares into the dark woods, bitterness deep seated on her face.   

What feels like an act of worship is nothing more than an act of trespass here.

“How can humans......” you trail off, heartsick.

Felony continues, “Only three percent of the old growth redwoods are left.  Ever since Maxxam Corporation took over the Pacific Lumber Company,  they’ve switched to clear cutting.   They’re ruthless, Butterfly. They drop napalm, burn the slash, and replant it with a softwood cash crop.  The town of Stafford was buried under a seventeen foot mudslide when a ridge they clear cut gave way on New Year’s.  Leveled eight houses.  Not to mention the habitat.  The Northern Spotted Owl.  The Marbled Murrelet...”   Felony trails off now, fists clenching and relaxing again.  You breath in the damp, sweet spice of the grove together in silence, winter‘s breath merging with the mist of the grove.

Once you leave, you cannot get the redwoods out of your mind.  This can only be how it feels to have a loved one on death row.  You are eager and helpless.  You seek out the activists again, trying to remember their made up names.  You ask them what you can do.

Almond brings you to Luna.  The first thing you notice, before her height,  the wreath of tawny bronze needles circling her base, or her subtle dry fragrance, is a large, hasty blue line slashing her rufous trunk.

“We have a plan,” he almost whispers. “To save her.”   He shows you a rope, no wider than your thumb.  You try to trace it skyward, but it may as well be anchored in the heavens.  You cannot see the top. 

“We’ve been sneaking in at night. We built a platform in her.”

“Where?”  You ask, neck craned and squinting skyward.

“About a hundred eighty feet up.  Worked all night under the full moon.  She practically named herself.” Almond grins.  “She’s one of the oldest souls left in the grove.  Even survived a lightening strike.”

  Almond gives a thoughtful pause.  “Pacific Lumber won’t cut a tree while we’re in it.”  He shrugs.  “Well, they haven’t yet.”

You rest a palm on Luna now, and can almost feel the pulse in her sapwood. 

“I’ll tree sit.”

This is your calling. You’ve mastered self reliance.  Luna is giving it purpose.

“How long do you need me?” 

“We’ve been taking shifts. Five, seven days maybe?  It depends on how moody Pacific Lumber is.  Sometimes they’ve been harassing us at the base, so it’s hard to say when we can switch out. “

You pack a backpack for a week to be safe. Single burner stove, a change of clothes, a sleeping bag, hat and rain coat.   Granola, grains, dried fruit.  Water. Your journal, an old video camera, and hand crank radio.  

Almond gives you a crash course in tree climbing.  

“There’s not much to it.” He grabs the rope, hands you a makeshift harness.

“How much duct tape is too much?” You joke nervously, fingering the reinforced chains.

“I almost forgot,” Almond interrupts, rummaging through his pack.  “This thing costs an arm and a leg - so don’t break it.  A lot of Earth First members went without so we could buy it.”

You flinch a little at their sacrifice.  “What is it?”

“A solar powered mobile device,” Almond answers.  “It’s a phone.  You can use it to alert us if you need to.”

“Thank you.  For everything, Almond.”  You place the phone carefully inside your coat.  “I’ll send the rope down for the supplies as soon as I’m up there.”

Almond rests a weathered hand on Luna’s trunk, and with the other, gently squeezes your shoulder. “For Luna.”

You nod solemnly. “For Luna.”

“Forgive us our trespasses,” you find yourself whispering, as you loop into the rope, and begin to climb. 

Her branches sweep the clouds this morning.  You give Luna your word.  You will not come down until you know she’s safe.  You don’t know it now, but it will be 738 days before you return to terra firma. 

Your home is a 6’ X 6’ plywood platform, sheltered by a tarp with a water collection bucket.  The space  reminds you of your childhood home; the camper and your bunk.  Granted, the tarp was for the firewood back then, but you find it oddly comforting. 

Your first week living with Luna, El Niño blows in a record winter storm.  You strap into your harness, terrified.  Winds whip through at sixty miles an hour, and you cling to Luna’s trunk like the mast of an ill fated ship.  You clench your eyes and hear only howling and the snapping of dead branches in the darkness.  Then Luna speaks, a punctuated softness in your chest.  

Don’t fight. She tells you. Only dead wood refuses to move. Trust me.  

She has survived the storms of a thousand years; you can weather this one together.  She teaches you to sway with her branches instead; riding them like the crest of an incoming bore tide.

In the morning, you perch above the foggy remnants of the storm. A rollicking, golden vapor sea stretches out below you, obscuring the scars of barren earth in the distance. Softening everything. Sunrise slowly burns it away. You thank Luna in the calm of this morning.  She remains a gracious host.  She sends you a pair of flying squirrels, tearing through her branches, for entertainment.  A reminder to find joy, even among the constant hum of the chainsaws.  She gifts you sap for the soles of your feet. May all your steps among my branches be steady.  And every night, she rocks you to sleep, while you dream of the mother you cannot descend to see.


Pacific Lumber is growing annoyed with your presence. They pilot a twin propellor chinook helicopter feet above Luna’s crown, trying to terrify you and destroy your shelter. They almost succeed. You do your best to video tape everything. They shine spotlights from below every night, trying to steal your sleep, and with it, your resolve. You reap the electricity, journaling and writing poetry.  And every morning they begin with shouting “you’re coming down today, tree hugger!”  They threaten to blow you both up.   You’re not convinced Pacific Lumber is willing to commit murder, and Luna’s lumber is worth $150,000.  

“One of us is too valuable for that!” You shout down.  

On the seventh day, Almond returns before dawn, as promised.  

“There aren’t any volunteers this week.”

You shrug.  “I promised Luna I would stay.”

He’s brought Felony with him.

“Send down your trash and compost.  We’ve brought supplies,“ Almond grins.

“It’s not all trash!” You smile, waving a package of what you hope are incriminating tapes and inspirational journal entries.

“Shakespeare made granola.  Felony collected cans and we bought most of the food and tapes with the returns.  Tuesday knit you the hat and gloves.  Are you staying warm enough up there?”

Felony tosses something rectangular into the mound of supplies, but you can’t make it out through the branches.  

“Just a little something extra!” She calls up.  

Asking for your trash and compost is the polite way to request your bucket of human waste.  You have a small amount of garbage too, but nothing is as humbling as dangling a bucket of your own shit over the heads of those who will dispose of it for you.  It’s a three mile hike out of here. 

You alternate “thank you” and “I’m sorry” for the entire fourteen story descent of the bucket.  

“Hurry!” Calls Almond.  “They’re coming!”  A throng of loggers and guards are snaking their way through first light in the understory, ready to start their shift. He hastily ties the supplies to your rope.  “Pull now!”

They don’t even look back at you, before diving into the woods. 

You heave the supplies without stopping until you know they are out of reach from the rabid pack of loggers below, hurling bottles and insults.

Felony’s rectangle is a manila envelope labeled “Fan Mail.”  You open it to find a dozen cards and letters from the children of Stafford Elementary. You find yourself, an oversized stick figure perched in a tree, surrounded by glittering hearts. Love, McKenzie. Daniel, aged eight, writes: My dad calls you a smelly hippy but I think you are the coolest ever. Heavy handed artists bleed blue and green ink through their cards full of crying planet earths and frowning squirrels. “Don’t give up!” “Please save our forests!” “We are counting on you!” The inside of every card is crammed full of exclamation points and the naive optimism of childhood. You find yourself laughing and ugly crying and reading every letter aloud to Luna.

The last page, written in the neat script of a teacher, contains a column of phone numbers. An asterisk indicates that some are unpublished. One column contains local and regional news stations, the second, newspapers.

You carefully cradle the solar phone, unsure of what you’ll say if anyone picks up. You are surprised when they tell you they’ve heard of you. You are offered a position as an “in tree” correspondent. It’s a quirky segment at first, you are the cute girl in the tree. But after a hundred days in Luna, you now hold a tree sitting record. You are also holding people’s attention.

You usually only have two or three minutes. Everyone wants to know what it’s like to live in a tree. Everyone wants to know what you do with your shit. Sometimes, you manage to show the audience Luna. You cry and read them their childrens’ letters. You laugh and give a shout out to Daniel’s father. You remind them their children are so smart, so beautiful, but they need our help. We are the ancestors of the future, what will our legacy be? You know they hear you, because Felony now brings you over a hundred letters a week, and you respond to every one.

You know they hear you when the phone calls are incoming. When the reporters begin to hike to you. When NBC calls to request an interview with Dateline.

You know they hear you when the FAA sends Pacific Lumber Company an indictment for flying within two hundred feet of you. When the helicopters stop.

You know they hear you when the loggers’ taunts go silent. When the guards at the bottom of Luna disappear. When spotlights are ordered off. America is watching now.

And America is watching when Charles Hurwitz, CEO of Maxxam Corporation finally calls you.

”I’d like to make a deal with the girl in my tree.”


Thank you for stopping by! It’s my first attempt here at what I suppose is creative non fiction? Feedback is always welcome. I found pacing to be a challenge. I loved researching about Julia, but it’s so hard to decide what to include in your story, while keeping the reader engaged. I also had a heck of a time with the ending, (a frequent issue for me) I’m not really satisfied with it, but finally decided it was time to move onto next weeks prompts.

June 05, 2021 03:55

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Hugo Millaire
14:43 Jun 24, 2021

This was awesome! Great job on the title, it’s what got me hooked to the story because of the intrigue it gives. The story itself was very well written of course, and I also liked the POV. Overall, great job, and keep writing!


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Tommy Goround
08:44 Nov 08, 2022

Wow. I just looked up your Muse. Over 2 years in a tree.


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