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E-cyclopedia Monday, 14 December, 1998, 14:47 GMT
Stylites: Climb a tree and stay there for 36 years
Stylites graphic
At the top of a 1,000-year-old tree in a Californian forest sits a young woman. She has been there for a year, and she could be there a lot longer.

Julia "Butterfly" Hill climbed the tree in the Headwaters Forest last December in protest at the felling of ancient redwood trees by the Pacific Lumber Company which can earn up to 1m for the wood from each tree.

The company has tried to get Ms Hill down from her tree, which she calls Luna. But its efforts have failed and now it says it will wait until she comes down. A battle of wills has ensued.

Tears of a tree

Ms Hill, who has become a heroine of the environmental movement, is passionate about her cause and about Luna, describing her campaign as a "spiritual quest".

And when Pacific Lumber started felling other trees, she said: "I found myself crying a lot and hugging Luna and telling her I was sorry. Then I noticed that I was being covered by sap pouring out of her body from everywhere, and I realised: 'Oh my God, you're crying too.'"

Her show of emotion may fail to bring a tear to the eye of heartless cynics, but it cannot be doubted that she comes from a long line of people who have chosen to sit alone, high in the air, in pursuit of a spiritual quest.

St Simeon Stylites (pron: sty-lite-ees), who lived near Antioch from 387 to 459, was the grand-daddy of them all. He roadtested a variety of activities to find something that would take him closer to God. These included tying rope around himself until his flesh rotted and teemed with worms, burying himself up to his neck for a few months, and living in a small dome chained to an iron ball for 10 years.

Tree-top disciples

Climbing a pillar 60 feet high (18 metres), he stayed there until he died, 36 years later. He spent his years preaching and gaining admirers, and even had a number of followers who also took to the top of pillars. They became known as Stylites.

Author George Lamb was a latter-day fan of Simeon Stylites. He wrote in 1952 : "Simeon seemed to have become famous. . .by doing absolutely nothing. He had done nothing, and got paid for it, so to speak. This struck me as pretty shrewd. I was lazy by nature in those days."

But Lamb did point to one of the reasons the Roman Catholic Church has venerated St Simeon: "There is safety in numbers, and so Simeon went up there alone; there is dizziness for the timid at the prospect of great heights, and Simeon faced it."

Geoff Smith from Mansfield in Nottinghamshire is another modern-day Stylite, last week breaking the European record for being buried alive.

Grave record

He reached his 101st day - breaking the record which had been set by his own mother - in a coffin-like box buried in the grounds of his local pub, the Railway Inn.

The pub landlord, Hartley Hughes, explained Mr Smith's motivation, saying: "When his mother did it, he was seven years old. He's now 37 and for last 30 years it's been his ambition to go and bury himself in a box."

Mr Smith is planning to be dug up at the end of January, when he will have broken the world record. But sadly for him, however long he can endure his task, unlike Julia Hill and St Simeon, he will never be someone people look up to.

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