Not to be confused with the Spanish-language film distributed by Miramax, this Butterfly is
a documentary about one
Julia 'Butterfly' Hill, a young eco-activist who gained notoriety after
taking up residency in one of Northern California's redwoods for close to two years. The film,
directed by Doug Wolens (Weed), has aired in a slightly different form on the PBS series
P.O.V.. This version has been screened at various film festivals and in limited runs around the
country.

   
 Butterfly unfolds in Humboldt County, California, where for close to a century the residents
lived more or less in harmony with Pacific Lumber, a locally-owned corporation that not only
employed many of those who lived nearby, but also allowed people to roam freely on the land it
owned, some of which was dominated by thousand year old redwood trees. When Pacific
Lumber was acquired by a corporate raider in the mid-1980s (in a deal the filmmaker suggests
may be legally questionable), however, attitudes changed. Production was accelerated, and
many areas that had previously been subjected to "selective harvesting" were now being cleared
at an alarming rate. (It didn't help that the company also used fires and toxic defoliators resulting
unstable watersheds that in turn led to mud slides.)

    One of the more vocal groups protesting the "new" Pacific Lumber's techniques was
Earth First!. Although it might be easy to dismiss them as "tree huggers" or time-warped
hippies, Earth Firsters clearly believed in what they were doing. Perhaps none more than Julia
Hill, a Pentacostal minister's daughter from Arkansas who settled in Northern California.
Although the Earth First! movement often engaged in various actions of civil disobedience (some
of which were illegal, hence the members' adoption of "nature" names as pseudonyms), Hill's
became the one that garnered the most notoriety. In December 1997, she climbed up into a
thousand-year old redwood she dubbed "Luna" and set up house. Armed with a cell phone,
portable stove, sleeping bag and other provisions, Hill created a command center from which she
sought to publicize her cause. Although it was slow going at first, her presence halt Pacific
Lumber from cutting down the tree.

    It could be easy for someone to just dismiss Hill and the Earth First! movement as a bunch of
radical tree-huggers, and one might argue that their actions were wrong, but director Doug
Wolens has another goal. Although he tries to present a fair and balanced portrait of what is
happening in the community (including interviews with a logger and a representative of Pacific
Lumber), it is also clear where his sympathies lie. He is out to make some sort of heroine of Julia
Hill, simply based on her decision to live in that redwood for more than two years. One
obviously has to admire her guts and her determination (regardless of how one feels about her
stand) but Wolens does have the time or facility to explore the psychology of what would drive
this young woman to sacrifice two years of her life. As the viewer watches and she speaks of
hearing voices and communicating with the tree, one begins to question her sanity. Unfortunately,
no answers are forthcoming from the documentarian.

    Similarly, when Pacific Lumber formulates an agreement to preserve "Luna," there is no
explanation as to how the compromise was reached.
Butterfly isn't terribly dramatic, although it
does function as a good primer on the environmental movement centered in Northern California.

        
Butterfly (2001)