SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 5 (San Francisco Chronicle)--During her 738-day stay atop the ancient redwood she named "Luna," Julia Hill spoke at length with documentary filmmaker Doug Wolens. Talking about the "unconditional love of our mother, Earth," Hill said: "No matter what we do to hurt her, to disrespect her, to desecrate her, to destroy her, she continues to love us by giving us life."

Generally speaking, people probably can be divided into two groups: those who get Julia "Butterfly" Hill and those who think she's a New Age wacko. Among the latter are likely to be the kind of folks who believe that--as Ronald Reagan once put it--if you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all.

For those of us in the former category, a centuries-old giant like Luna basically stands as a powerful and sacred symbol of life itself. And the 26-year-old Hill's long protest sit--on two six-by-six-foot platforms, 200 feet above the ground--represents about as pure and brave an act of obeisance as a person can deliver.

Law enforcement authorities may never find out who recently sneaked into Luna's protected space in Humboldt County, took a chain saw and cut through 60 percent of her great trunk. But, if Hill is right about Mother Earth, the person or people who did it may well be granted a very long time to live. Maybe enough time to understand the enormity and perversity of their actions.

The towering tree, also known as "the Stafford giant" (for the town near which it grows), is at least 600 years old; possibly it is 1,000. That means that, at a minimum, it was reaching toward the sun and sinking its roots ever wider and deeper into the Northern California soil a century before Sir Francis Drake was born. The conifer's trunk--now violated 19 feet around by a 32-inch-deep gash--has a circumference of 38 feet. Its spinal cord, a thick, life-giving layer known as the cambium, is irreparably damaged. Arborists interviewed by The Chronicle's Glen Martin about the tree's prognosis were, at best, "moderately hopeful," at worst, "not wildly optimistic." The maiming of Luna could be a test for Julia Hill that will make her two-year-plus, wild and wind-swept inhabitation seem like an afternoon at Audubon Ranch. Alone most of the time and barefoot, Hill more than bonded with the old tree. She grew to love it, and she believes she learned the most profound and eternal lessons from it that any human can. As she told Wolens: "My one thing that I would tell the world is 'love.' Everything that fits under everything else fits under love. If we want to heal the wounds in our Earth, and if we want to heal the wounds in each other, and if we want a beautiful future, we need to do our very, very best to make sure that every word, every action is done in love."

Who ever chose to wound Hill by wounding Luna did not act in love. Whether the inspiration was anger at the forest conservation movement that motivated and supported Hill's protest, or whether it was insanity, the act is a testament to a dark, twisted--and deeply wounded--soul. From everything Hill has said, written and done since Dec. 18, 1999, when she struck a deal with Pacific Lumber Co. to spare Luna and end her tree-sit, she seems eminently capable of passing this latest test. Despite her supporters' desire to deify her, and her critics' attempts to make her the anti-Christ, she has remained faithful to the gospel she says she received in the tree.

Last week, there was a small but promising sign that Hill's fidelity may be bearing unexpected fruit. As soon as the attack on Luna was discovered, legions of arborists and other botanists descended on the site and began to work feverishly to save the tree. Among them: redwood experts from Hill's longtime nemesis, Pacific Lumber.

In the middle of her stay in Luna's topmost branches, Hill told filmmaker Wolens that she prayed often and always got an answer, though, "I don't always get the answer I want." One such reply, she said, was a gentle warning: "Sometimes you get so caught up in what you're struggling against, you forget what you're standing for. And what you're standing for is love and respect for all life."

Again, taking her cues from Mother Earth, Hill said: "If she can continue to love us through all of what we do to her, then we can surely find it in ourselves to love each other."