Trees and columns

The famous tree-sitting of Julia Butterfly Hill has a parallel in the column-sitting of Simon Stylites. Both were motivated not so much by a cultural or group concern but by a strong personal conviction — a moral imperative to make a statement, not a social or cultural motive. A journalist who ascended to the makeshift platform that Julia Hill had in the top of the tree noted how cold and windy it was and remarked how she could possibly stand it. Julia replied that it was very difficult at first but that now the cold was a sensation, not a hardship. Simon would have had the parallel experience. He would have endured the heat without hardship, just as a sensation.

How did others react or respond to them? It was not the message that was deficient but the people — not the message that lacked persuasion but the moral turpitude of the hearers and witnesses. The tree or the column were props, accessories, devices. They worked because they symbolized the gist of their message — Julia Hill about the deforestation, Simon about moral corruption.

As with others embarked on a solitary work, the inner psychological resources were the mainstay of the individual — with a little help from friends (food and supplies). And the time to come down was determined by a deep-rooted conviction that one had done enough to deliver the message, to strike the best moral deal given the culture and the people. This is the point at which Jesus would say it was time to kick the dust from one’s feet and move on to other projects, other audiences. Or to none at all, perhaps, to just recluse oneself.

Despite the public attention and the inherent danger of their respective exploits, both Simon Stylites and Julia Butterfly Hill knew in their hearts what it meant to be a solitary.