Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – It’s a rainy Thursday in early November, and a small group of hikers – researchers, students, teachers and one reporter – ascend a steep ridge trail just south of Scotia. Led by Stuart Moskowitz of Sanctuary Forest, we are on a trip to check on Luna, the iconic redwood tree that became the focus of international attention two decades ago, when environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill gave two years of her life to protest clear-cut logging by the Pacific Lumber/Maxxam Corporation (see timeline, below).
After a half mile of steep, slippery climbing and bushwacking to clear the existing trail, the rocky forest path we follow narrows, with a steep dropoff to the left. Nervous, I am watching my feet, but am suddenly aware that the other hikers have come to a halt. I stop too, look up, and there she is: Luna. The thousand-year-old tree, today easily recognizable by the massive steel braces that prevent her from toppling, is truly awe-inspiring.
Bringing up the rear, Moskowitz enters the narrow clearing that surrounds the tree. Immediately, he crouches and enters a hollow – a charred fire scar that predates the tree-sit – at Luna’s base, with the ease and familiarity of a bear entering its den. He sits, leaning against the tree, takes off his glasses, and closes his eyes. A moment of reverent silence falls over the group. Then the storytelling begins.
Luna’s local Lorax
Like the iconic Dr. Seuss character The Lorax, Moskowitz speaks for the tree. A member of the board of Sanctuary Forest, he has been Luna’s caretaker since 2000, when the organization was invited to be the covenantee in the agreement struck between Hill and Pacific Lumber/Maxxam Corporation to end her tree-sit. Sanctuary Forest, “a land and water trust whose mission is to conserve the Mattole River watershed and surrounding areas,” monitors Luna and her surrounding three-acre easement.
For 17 years now, Moskowitz has tended to Luna, visiting her two or three times a year, sometimes more. He spends much more time than that talking about Luna, telling her story, as he did in a lecture last October at the Natural History Museum in Arcata.
As Hill noted in The Legacy of Luna, her engaging and harrowing account of her time with Luna (published in 2000), “the whole point of the tree-sit … was to draw the public’s attention to the problem” of clear-cut logging. It has now fallen to Moskowitz to cultivate and nurture the ongoing public interest in Luna by giving talks and interviews, as well as by assisting writers, researchers, filmmakers and other documentarians in telling their own versions of her tale, including this one.
At the center is always Luna herself, the oldest tree and largest in the area, with her unknown and untold thousand-year history. Besides Hill’s own account, Luna has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles, of a paper by a Jungian analyst, of student essays and school curricula. She has been featured in numerous books, including Luna & Me, a 2015 book for children by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw and, most recently in National Geographic’s Wise Trees, which was published this past October. She is also the only tree featured in the 2006 book, The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape.
Moskowitz pointed out that Luna’s story still generates international attention. In June 2016, he said, German weekly newspaper Die Zeit dispatched a science reporter to Humboldt County to write Luna’s story; he expects the paper to run a feature this December to mark the 20th anniversary of Hill’s ascension into Luna. Wikipedia notes that Hill’s story also inspired a 2017 Swedish children’s book, Julia räddar skogen (Julia saves the forest) by Niklas Hill and Anna Palmqvist, a 12th-season episode of The Simpsons, a documentary film, Butterfly, released in 2000, and numerous songs by the likes of Neil Young, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Idina Menzel, among others.
Interest has increased with the 20-year anniversary. In his talk, Moskowitz spoke of shepherding a French film crew for a week this past summer as they filmed an episode of a documentary series titled, in English, Tree Stories – Around the World. According to Moskowitz, who was granted a preview, the episode that features Luna, paired with that of a Japanese bonsai half her age, is titled “Survivors.” The filmmakers have agreed to allow Sanctuary Forest to hold one screening of the documentary film, which Moskowitz hopes to host as a fundraiser. [Full disclosure: as we were departing Luna, he invited me to help organize it, and I accepted; stay tuned for more details.]
Luna still stands
Luna stands, as she has for a millennium, on a ridge, located west of the community of Stafford. Clearly visible from U.S. Highway 101 on a clear day, her top two bare branches, described by Hill as “the most magical spot” she had ever visited, distinguish her from among her companions. Moskowitz pointed her out among the other trees on the ridge: “Christmas tree, Christmas tree, Christmas tree, Luna.”
Formerly known as the Stafford Giant, the tree is some 200 feet tall. Aptly, in the agreement that saved Luna, she is the centerpoint of a 200-foot diameter buffer zone that protects the grove that surrounds her. The agreement is still in effect under new property owner Humboldt Redwood Company. The company’s president, Mike Jani (now retired), took “an active hands-on role with Luna Easement” according to Moskowitz, and became such a strong supporter of Sanctuary Forest programs that he volunteered in the organization’s Summer Hike Program.
Even the peaceable end of Hill’s controversial tree-sit did not put a stop to the vitriol directed at the activists and the tree itself. Seventeen years ago this month, Luna was attacked by a still-unknown vandal, who used a chainsaw with a 3-foot bar to saw through about half of her circumference. When telling Luna’s story, Moskowitz said, he always includes a direct address to the person who attacked Luna:
“Somewhere, perhaps right here in this room, is Luna’s chainsaw attacker, still free after 17 years. I hope that this person, wherever he or she may be, hears this story. Luna is not forgotten – Luna is not weakened – Luna stands tall, and every year grows beautiful new boughs. I want this person to know that Luna’s message continues to reach around the world, perhaps even more because of that malicious attack.”
Essence and bear spit
Earlier this month, at Luna’s base, Moskowitz invited the hikers to share their own stories of Luna. Some had climbed Luna, some had been involved in the response to the devastating attack. On our drive to see the tree, Moskowitz shared with me a handwritten letter Hill had sent him, along with a bottle of “Essence of Luna,” a distillate of Luna’s bark, needles and sap, and a little brandy, that Hill made during her two years in the tree. Hill directed Moskowitz to dilute the tincture with some spring water and to use the liquid in a brief ritual every time he visits the tree. The day of our visit, he invited one of the hikers to do the honors to the seven directions (north, south, east, west, sky, earth and center). Afterward, he passed around the cobalt blue bottle and invited any who were interested to help themselves to a drop or two; some placed it on their tongues, some anointed themselves.
Engaging in such spiritual practices may seem out of character for Moskowitz. He is, after all, a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics at Humboldt State, and some would see his academic training in science as being at odds with his participation in such rituals. But it is clear that in this, as in other aspects of Luna’s care, Moskowitz and others have taken their cue from Hill, whose opinions on Luna’s wellbeing are sought out and clearly deeply respected.
In his recent lecture, Moskowitz detailed the aftermath of the attack on Luna. Fearful that winter winds could topple the severely-injured tree, Pacific Lumber and Sanctuary Forest leapt into action. The great iron “butterfly bandage” braces that support Luna were manufactured, with great speed and at considerable expense, in Pacific Lumber’s machine shop. The shop itself, Moskowitz said, was decorated with an Earth First! banner loggers had ripped from the forest during the tree-sit.
Consultants suggested a variety of materials to patch Luna’s deep wound, including a plastic polymer. At Hill’s request, however, a decision was made to use natural materials, and Hill asked Moskowitz to contact Cherokee Earth Medicine Healer Byron Utah Jordan. As Moskowitz tells it, Jordan suggested clay as an all-around natural bandage, the second-best thing to use.
“What’s the best?” asked Moskowitz. “Bear spit,” he reports Jordan responding, “but it’s hard to get.”
Undeterred, Moskowitz began contacting bear experts and zoos, finally connecting with the Sequoia Park Zoo, whose locally beloved American black bear, Rosemary, obligingly chewed up and slobbered on some celery.
Moskowitz, seated at the base of Luna, pulled a bear-saliva-encrusted piece of plastic from a pouch and passed it around. “It’s never been washed,” he said, “but at this point, the bear spit on it is more ‘homeopathic’.”
On Feb. 9, 2001, a group including Moskowitz and Hill closed the wound “with clay, love and spit.” At Jordan’s direction, they used local clay, which Moskowitz dug out from his backyard.They mixed in the celery and bear spit, and some of their own saliva, and packed Luna’s wound.
Moskowitz left a bag of clay in the forest by Luna, where it stays moist. He still packs the wound to this day, inviting visitors to participate in this rite as well.
Maybe it was the bear spit, maybe it was the bracing, but more likely a combination of these and many other factors, for despite all dire predictions, Luna thrives. Writes Moskowitz: “Shortly after the chainsaw attack, in December 2000, Professor Steve Sillett, HSU canopy biologist, predicted Luna could lose perhaps 80 percent of her foliage because the flow of water to the leaves had been severed.” In his presentation, Moskowitz pointed out that an obscure piece of conifer research dating from 1959 shows that “Coast Redwoods can lift water in a zigzag pattern, which helps us understand how Luna continues to send water and nutrients throughout her canopy … If this research had been discovered earlier, their prognosis for Luna may have been more optimistic.”
Today, Luna’s wound remains glaring, a heartbreaking reminder of vindictiveness. But the wound also shows signs of healing. Bulges around the scar indicate an accumulation of nutrients. The tree is making new layers of bark, some ropy and spongy. The foliage at the very tip of the tree has died back – something Moskowitz said is not unusual in a lightning-struck Coastal Redwood of her age – revealing her distinctive upper branches. But the remainder of her crown is lush, green and vibrant.
Wisdom without words
As we leave Luna, Moskowitz leads us along a different path, pointing out various vantage points from which to better see Luna’s crown. As we walk, Moskowitz checks on the anchor points of the cables that help stabilize the tree. There are four cables, though, as he tells it, Hill had been adamant that Luna wanted only three, a rare instance in which Hill’s wishes were not followed. One of the cables is attached to the ground with an anchor that was drilled 27 feet into the ground. Other cables were secured not by wrapping neighboring trees, but by drilling through them, a practice, said Moskowitz, which is less harmful.
Hill’s observation that “Luna needs a family around her to keep her standing” proved literally true. The cables protect Luna just as Moskowitz protects Luna, a successor to the Earth First! activists and to Julia Butterfly Hill, whose presence is felt in every story and still resonates at the tree itself. And like Luna is protected and supported by her neighboring trees, she, in turn, protects the grove where she has stood for a thousand years.
In closing his presentation, Moskowitz turned to the words of Anna Walraven, a Dutch woman who visited Luna in 2014 in “a search for answers to the big questions of our time,” according to the website futurefuel.nl. While initially wondering why she had subjected herself to the torturous airplane trip to Humboldt County, upon meeting Luna, she wrote, “the longer I remain here, and the more I quiet my mind, the more I feel the energy of this special place. There are no words to describe this energy, I can’t describe it, but it makes me want to endlessly sit leaning against the tree and listen, just listen. To what? My mind squeals this is all crazy, but my heart truly feels the energy and connects with the thousand-year-old wisdom that is rooted in this tree. And while I sit there I realize that this may be the most important insight of my quest for answers: that there exists a deep wisdom, a wisdom without words.”
Layers of such stories surround Luna, growing out from her like bark from cambium. As Moskowitz pointed out, stories are what now keep Luna safe, cocooning her in a world-wide web of words – and of love.
Read Moskowitz’ Luna updates and learn more about Sanctuary Forest’s ongoing work to save this and other trees, at sanctuaryforest.org.