Julia Butterfly

Environmentalist as Stylite and Ascetic


  • Noel Salmond Carleton University




eco-piety, Julia Butterfly Hill, asceticism, religion and environment


This paper examines the writings of a prominent contemporary environmental activist, Julia Butterfly Hill, in light of the resonance between her own account of her two year tree-sit atop a California redwood and motifs from the history of religions. Environmentalism is often derided as a new religion. Acknowledging this critique, the paper argues that, indeed, a significant part of Hill’s public appeal lies in the religious elements in her actions and ideas. Like Byzantine Stylite saints, her charisma is indebted to her asceticism. Hill’s environmentalism is not a new religion, but it is a manifestation of overlapping environmental and religious sensibilities. This religious environmentalism or environmental religiosity may be new but it draws on very ancient religious associations between nature and the
sacred. If Hill is representative of a new eco-piety, her eco-piety is informed not only by these archaic and archetypal elements, it is also derived from and influenced by Christian piety. Finally, if asceticism generates charisma, it also generates heightened awareness and sensory sensitivity—in Hill’s case, the claim to be able to listen to her tree and the message of the forest.

Author Biography

Noel Salmond, Carleton University

Carleton University


Buber, Martin 1970 I and Thou (trans. W. Kaufmann; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons).

Dalrymple, William 1988 From the Holy Mountain (London: Flamingo).

DeLuca, Kevin 1999 Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism (New York: Guilford).

‘Trains in the Wilderness: The Corporate Roots of Environmentalism’, Rhetoric and Public Affairs 4.4: 633-52. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/rap.2001.0067

Dunlap, Thomas R. 2004 Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as a Religious Quest (Seattle: University of Washington Press).

Gottlieb, Roger (ed.) 1996 This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (New York: Routledge).

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia n.d. ‘St. Symeon the Stylite’. Online: http://home.it.net.au/~jgrapsas/pages/St_Symeon.htm (accessed April 2005).

Grigg, William 1996 ‘Green Jihad is Wiping Out a Way of Life in the Pacific Northwest’. The New American 12.3. Online: http://www.thenewamerican. com/tna/1996/vo12no03/vo12no03_green_jihad.htm.

Hill, Julia Butterfly 2000 The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman, and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods (New York: HarperSanFrancisco).

Lau, D.C. (trans.) 1963 Tao Te Ching (London: Penguin).

Ouspensky, Leonid, and Vladimir Lossky 1983 The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

Reynolds, Frank, and Donald Capps (eds.) 1976 The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion (The Hague: Mouton). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110805833

Ruether, Rosemary Radford 1983 Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press).

Schneider, John R. 2000 ‘Can Christian Theology Let the Trees Do the Talking?’ Religion and Liberty (March/April). Online: http://www.acton.org/publicat/randl/article.php?id+338

Tambiah, Stanley 1984 The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets: A Study in Charisma, Hagiography, Sectarianism, and Millennial Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511558177

Walsh, Brian J., Marianne B. Karsh, and Nik Ansell 1994 ‘Trees, Forestry, and the Responsiveness of Creation’, Cross Currents: A Journal of Religion and Intellectual Life 44.2: 149-62.

Wimbush, Vincent, and Richard Valantasis (eds.) 1998 Asceticism (New York: Oxford University Press).



How to Cite

Salmond, N. (2006). Julia Butterfly: Environmentalist as Stylite and Ascetic. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 11(4), 465–480. https://doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.v11i4.465