Bitter truths

Special to The Times

There are moments in life when we are brought to the very edge of what it means to be alive. And it seems in those moments, one simple choice could send us over that edge into death. It is also in this place where we are most aware of what it means to be alive — truly, deeply, powerfully alive.

For me, one such moment came in the El Niño winter of 1997-98. It seems I had chosen the worst winter in the recorded history of California to climb into the branches of thousand-year-old redwood and declare that I would not touch ground again until I had done everything I could to protect the area from being logged and make the world aware of the plight of our old-growth forests. Little did I know when I made that promise that I was heading into a winter that would become so brutal, it would test every ounce of who I am to survive it.

Picture a tiny, 4-foot-by-8-foot platform hanging 180 feet in the air, tied to branches with ropes and webbing. It is protected from the elements only with old, falling-apart plastic tarps, woven with branches and duct tape. Every day, winds range from 45 to 65 miles per hour; rain, sleet and hail pound almost daily; snow follows not far behind.

As the wet and cold began to set in, I piled on my few belongings and huddled. My gear consisted of one cotton T-shirt, thermal long sleeves and bottoms, and a sweatshirt; one wool sweater and pair of pants; one hat, a pair of fingerless gloves, a rain jacket and a summer-rated sleeping bag. I would scrunch myself as small as possible to try to conserve what little heat was emanating from my freezing body. I used all of my mind's willpower trying to imagine heat as a fire inside of me. I failed pretty miserably — visualization never was my strong suit.

Endless days of this intensity turned my body into a shivering, miserable mass. My skin began to blister, and my lymph nodes swelled to the size of walnuts. Then an incredible pain set into my fingers and toes. A searing, burning sensation was followed by my digits changing colors — turning from red to white, blue, purple and, finally, to black. My skin began to die and flake off. The pain was so intense that even the weight of the sleeping bag was almost more than I could bear. I took off some clothes and shoved them in the end of my sleeping bag to hold the weight off of my toes. Constant shivering became the norm, followed by massive sleep deprivation caused by the wet, cold, pain and wind — the largest storm gusted over 90 miles an hour. I knew I was going to die.

And it was in this space of being nearly out of my mind, sobbing uncontrollably, that I gave in, let go and embraced life as I had never done before. Feeling absolutely broken, I realized how incredibly precious every single moment of life truly is. None of us knows when our day comes and says time's up. It's only our ego that tricks us into believing that death is a someday thing. It's not that I became a dark, morbid person. Rather, I recognized that to live life to its fullest, we have to live every moment as if it were our last — no matter where we are or what we are doing.

For me, that also meant living life for a purpose greater than just myself. And it was in that moment that the excruciating cold, pain and wet became a fire that fanned the inner flame of my commitment for the 738 days I spent living in that tree, and that continues to do so to this day.

— Julia Butterfly Hill


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