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Julia and Luna, Sacred Activism (Part Two)- Musings and Meditations

Updated: Jun 26

“We need to have an immediate, non-mediated relationship to reality... not mediated through measurements or symbols or models, but actually sense it.”

“The whole set of measurements I could ever have, the whole set of (natural) laws I could ever have, will be infinitely far away from the set that matters. So I want to take it (the measurements) as useful, but also as infinitely wrong. The thing that is sacred is unknowable... but I have to continue to sense into it and not live inside any kind of model of reality”

Daniel Schmachtenberger

“I see who you are:

a profound opportunity of a gorgeous gift

 a manifestation of the Divine 

I know who you are 

and I do not know anything 

that you do not already know”

Julia Butterfly Hill, from the poem ‘Divine Mirrors’

Julia Butterfly Hill on the makeshift platform on which she lived for two years, 180 feet above the ground in the 1,500-year-old redwood Luna

In my musing last week, I referred to the activism of someone like Julia Hill as 'sacred'.

I realize I am treading on thin ice in using that word: I am aware of the resistance in large parts of our society to the notion of the sacred or holy.

Still, I want to muse a bit further on that notion of the sacred, and how that was an important aspect for Julia Butterfly Hill, and also for myself.

Why should we involve a notion like ‘the sacred’ in ecology, or in an attempt to understand the world, an attempt at sense-making. It is a concept that is currently null and void in the world of political and economic institutions, within which we must be players, so to speak, if we want to effect change. Politics, within the ‘common sense consensus’, is a game of forces of self-interest, competition and domination, in the jungle that is our world. Economics is the game-theoretic realm of maximization of that self-interest in which all of the natural world consists of ‘commodities’ and ‘natural resources’ and ultimately revolves around transforming those ‘resources’ into money. People who want to exert some influence at the political level had best also use the language of the well-understood self-interest of our species, the 'apex predator' and 'homo economicus,' and point out the primarily economic importance that the natural world has for us. Nature provides 'ecosystem services' and therefore we must protect it. We must be rational economic actors, and ‘manage’ our natural resources in a way that serves our program of progress and economic growth.

In next week's musing, I will introduce systems philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger, who in a mere seven minutes utterly demolishes this position and this ‘common sense consensus’ in a way that makes you gasp for a breath of air. That excerpt, by the way, is part of an hour and a half interview on capitalism and the meta-crisis that I will share another time in the blog.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself. The reason I mention Schmachtenberger at this point is that he is a brilliant thinker who is constantly thinking through what thinking is capable of thinking. He thinks with astonishing precision in both depth and breadth to the limits of thought, and there he too encounters the mysterious and the sacred. I would not call Schmachtenberger a mystic and he does not talk about it very often, but he emphasizes more than once that thinking alone will not get us there (although he himself excels in that thinking). What will be needed is to learn (again) to think beyond words. Thinking without words? Yes indeed, in Schmachtenberger's words a kind of reunited ‘thinking - feeling - sensing’.

Schmachtenberger states, after thinking through countless systems and methods and possible strategies in the context of the meta-crisis we find ourselves in, that there is no model or system that can save us or that we can fall back on. He states unequivocally that in order to figure out what to do, we must imagine ourselves on our deathbed, and take what we might perceive to be most important there in our retrospective review of our lives as the basis for our choices, and extrapolate that to what we can do for the good of all, not just ourselves.

What is it that fills our consciousness when seeing our newborn child, or when experiencing the death of a loved one?  What happens beyond the limits of thought, what do we fall back on in the moments when we are not thinking but playing music or looking at art or doing nothing and watching the clouds? And how can we expand what emerges then into a sense of connection with literally everyone, with all of humanity, and with the entire biosphere? Schmachtenberger is himself a passionate thinker and thinks everything through to the limit of words, but there at that limit he recognizes mystery, which he also affirms as the basis for right choices, rather than any model of knowledge.

And that is where for me the sacred begins: the (re)recognition of all that lies beyond thought and beyond words, in the direct experience of reality unmediated by models and systems.

Is that possible, to be in direct contact with reality unmediated by models and systems? Yes indeed, and I am sure every one of you, dear readers, has already experienced such moments, and probably more often than you realize. This is also an aspect of the mystical experience which is characterized by an intense and often unexpected feeling of being absolutely one with all-that-is.

There are many misunderstandings about the mystical experience, and I will return to that in the musings and in the blog, because I think it is very important that we begin to see its meaning again in a clear light. To that end, I will include authors, philosophers and scientists who have shared fascinating insights regarding the experience of the mystical and sacred.

I myself have had such experiences several times, and most of the moments of sudden and unexpected but intense sensation of being one with all-that-is were moments when I was alone in nature.

Which brings me to one of the reasons the story of Julia and Luna resonated so deeply with me: I know the redwoods and have visited them several times. I lived for four years not so far from where Luna has been standing tall for 1,500 years. I have spent time in old-growth forests and among trees as old as our written history. I know the sense of recognition of the mystery that resides in these wondrous ecosystems that are these old-growth forests, and I know the despair and dismay at the thought that these wonders that have grown over thousands or tens of thousands of years to their present unimaginable richness and complexity and harmonious splendor are being destroyed in mere hours to make planks or paper or palm oil plantations. I know the sadness that permeates one at the sight of a ‘clearcut’, a barren and dead wasteland where a primeval forest once stood. I know the feeling that comes over you in a pristine primeval forest that makes you silent and grateful and humble: the knowledge that you are actually in a temple. I know the feeling of kinship with these trees, a feeling that you are related to these beings who are conscious in ways that are very different from our own consciousness. And those feelings of oneness and recognition are experiences that are as old as mankind, and that are also at the core of mystical movements within all great religions, represented in our Western Christian tradition by (among others) Dionysius the Aeropagite or Hildegard von Bingen. And I am grateful for every moment I have been able to spend in pristine nature, and all the times I have been able to experience that wondrous web that connects everything to everything, including myself. 

It is an experience that is difficult to share through words because the sacred simply lies beyond words, as Daniel Schmachtenberger also acknowledges in his unending streams of brilliant words.

Millennia-old redwoods in Northern California. Photo: Filip Van Kerckhoven

Schmachtenberger also refers to Lao Tzu and the first words in the Tao Te Ching: "The Tao you can talk about is not the real Tao." And the brilliant thinker Schmachtenberger humbly admits it: we must not (or not only) think but sense into the unknowable, immeasurable and sacred, in order to come to the right decisions or to know what to do. When we feel beyond the limit of words, answers still do come. And for Julia Butterfly Hill, those answers were loud and clear, as she also testified several times during her time in the tree and afterwards in the life of interviews and lectures that took her around the world for decades, recounting the answers that came from beyond the words and that led her to do everything humanly possible to save that one tree Luna. Giving two years of your life to save one tree: it is to our rational mind weighing costs and benefits within the confines of our limited perceptions and concepts an almost incomprehensible act. It is an action that only makes sense if you shift the parameters and then expand or shift our ideas of what is real, what is possible and what is valuable, if you expand those parameters beyond the limits of our concepts and words. Because that's where the mystery begins.

And the experience of the sacred or mystical unification is one of the things that can move us to save what we love: the (re)recognition of the sacred is a mirror of and perhaps even condition of love, and it is possibly only love that will move us to take the right action, not an economic cost-benefit analysis or a system or model.

As Thomas Berry puts it, "The lack of a sense of the sacred is the essential flaw in many of our attempts to adapt our human presence to the natural world. As the saying goes, "We will not save what we do not love. It is also true that we will not love or save what we do not experience as sacred....In the end, only our sense of the sacred will save us."

This has been a longer musing once again, but the notion of the sacred invites a bit more than fleeting attention (even though it cannot be captured in words).

To end this musing, below you will find a seven minute video of the first part of a lecture Julia Hill gave at a yoga conference in 2010. You can find the other five parts on YouTube as well. This lecture gives an idea of the spiritual dimension of Julia Butterfly Hill’s activism, and of the message she was helping to spread in the decades of traveling and lecturing following her two year stay in the ancient redwood Luna. 

At the end of this fragment she reads the poem ‘Divine Mirrors’. Enjoy!

Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful day!

Until the next installment,

All the best to you,


 Eight-minute excerpt from a talk by Julia Butterfly Hill on spiritual activism, at the Midwest Yoga Conference in 2010. You will find the other five parts of that talk as well on YouTube.

Julia Butterfly Hill in the top of Luna.


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