Tree-sitter plants seeds of environmental activism


By Daniel Wallace

Environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill spoke this Friday at the Jivamukti Yoga Center on Lafayette Street in an event sponsored by the Lower Eastside Girls Club to raise funds for the construction of their new “green” clubhouse on Avenue D.

Hill gained recognition in 1997 for climbing a 180-foot California redwood tree, 1,000 years old, which was marked for logging and in which Hill lived for 738 days on a platform of salvaged wood and plastic tarps in order to prevent the tree’s destruction.

“It was an incredible, life-changing experience,” she said. “I did it to protect the tree, and to call attention to the plight of our old-growth forests.”

Having successfully saved the tree, Hill has embarked on a nationwide tour dubbed We the Planet, in which she is traveling in a bus converted into an eco-friendly vehicle that runs on recycled vegetable oil and biodiesel.

“The purpose of the tour is to raise money and awareness, and to support activism,” Hill said. “Like tonight. I’m so excited to support the wonderful, amazing, brilliant lights that are the young women of the Lower Eastside Girls Club.”

Adriana Pezzulli, director of capital projects for the girls club, said the club has grown from a group of women meeting in kitchens and church basements into an organization providing services to over 300 girls ages 8 to 18.

“We’re about to celebrate our 10-year anniversary,” Pezzulli said. “Constructing a green building has been our goal from the beginning.”

The new building will be located on Avenue D between Seventh and Eighth Streets and will be the first and only girls club in New York City. It will be built with environmental principals in mind: a green roof, solar-powered electricity, window panes that preserve energy, a rainwater collection system to flush toilets and waste water that is recycled.

“We’re breaking ground in 2006,” Pezzulli said. “And I expect the building to be opened for fall 2007 programs.”

Thursday’s meeting attracted Jivamukti students and teachers, representatives of Code Pink New York — a women’s peace activist group — girls club members and supporters and many fans of Julia Butterfly Hill. Pezzulli said over 100 people were in attendance.

Guests had to remove their shoes before entering the Jivamukti yoga hall. Inside, the lights were dimmed over a large room with wooden floors, lavender-painted walls, fluted columns supporting the ceiling and, in back, tables of activist groups offering brochures.

Angelica’s Kitchen, which catered the event for free, had a table against the back wall offering food, filtered water and vegan chai. Incense and candles burned before altars on the sidewall. Ceiling fans wafted the scent throughout the room. Hypnotic, Eastern music played quietly in the background.

After an hour of mingling and picture-taking the meeting began. A young girl walked up to the platform, at the front of the room, and stood nervously on a throw rug before the microphone, squinting in the spotlight.

“I’m Michelle from the girls club,” she said. “Thank you all for coming. I’m so excited to be here because I really admire Julia Butterfly Hill.”

She walked off the platform surrounded by applause.

Three other speakers came forward before Hill. The last of them was David Life, co-founder of the Jivamukti Yoga Center, who wore a long bleach-white robe that nearly shone under the spotlight. His shoulder-length brown hair, parted in the middle, gave him the appearance of an actor from an old Jesus film.

“It really does take four people to introduce Julia Butterfly Hill,” he said, to the laughter of the room. “When we come back, reincarnated as little people in this world, and we look around and find a tree — it will be largely because of the work of this wonderful person. Please welcome Julia.”

Hill spoke at length about how nervous she was. She quickly won the crowd with her dynamic, stream-of-consciousness, self-deprecating style of speech. She told stories about her days in the tree, how one night hunters with .22-caliber rifles shot at her for 10 minutes and how afterwards, yelling down from her platform, she befriended them.

“I want to say, the Lower Eastside Girls Club just rocks,” she said.

The audience cheered.

“The leaders of today are leading us in a direction I don’t want to go in. We need organizations like the girls club to train leaders of tomorrow,” Hill stressed. “Because I don’t want to go in the direction of the annihilation of our sacred planet.”

Hill said she wanted to inspire the audience by holding up a mirror through which they could see for themselves how “divine and powerful” they all were.

“Because we can’t see in others what we don’t have in ourselves,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to recognize it.”

Hill talked about her own experiences as an activist and a vegan. “A joyful vegan,” she clarified. “I always say that. Because when I say I’m a vegan, people automatically assume, oh, she’s angry. She must be angry and bored.”

The theme of Hill’s message was that people must embody the vision of the world they want to live in.

“We’re not just fighting against things,” she said. “And we’re not sitting around waiting for things to change. We need to be the change. Be the vision. And that’s why I’m so impressed with the girls club, because that’s exactly what they’re doing.”