Two things about John Francis are stunning to consider: He chose to not speak for 17 years and chose to walk everywhere for 22 years. His parents worried for his sanity, but eventually saw that he was living by his values. His wandering reminds me of Johnny Appleseed planting all those trees, and his silence reminds me of Anne LeClaire who chooses to be silent two days a month.
A TED talk brought him to my attention and I found his book Planetwalker (2008, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic) in Evanston Public Library. When John Francis was a young man in 1971, he witnessed an oil spill from two tankers that collided under the Golden Gate Bridge.He decided that he didn’t want to depend on things that depended on oil, so he gave up riding in motorized vehicles. He walked everywhere, often playing his banjo as he went. To complete his college education, he walked from California to Southern Oregon State College, then onto Missoula, Montana for a graduate degree, then to Madison, Wisconsin for his Ph.D. in land resources. Eventually, he crossed the entire country on foot.
His parents stopped wondering about his mental health and started following his accomplishments with pride. John could only converse with them by notes and hand signs because he gave up talking. He got all those degrees without saying a word! He gave up talking for a day so he could listen better. The day turned into a year and the year lasted until April 22, 1990. “I have chosen Earth Day to begin speaking,” he said, “so that I will remember that now I will be speaking for the environment.” (p. 250)
Dr. Francis said (p. 274), “I think I’d like to refer to myself as an environmental practitioner instead of an environmentalist. … [P]ractitioner implies becoming and doing something in order to improve. In the end, I think it’s about learning to live better on Earth.” In 1991, he was hired by the U.S. government to help draft oil spill regulations. He also founded an environmental organization, Planetwalker, and developed a curriculum he calls Planetlines.
One of the things he wants to share is that “walking and silence save me. They not only give me the opportunity to slow down to listen and to watch others; they afford the same opportunity with myself.” (p. 50) John’s pilgrimage was an individual journey, but its effects rippled far and wide. I learn from him to walk the planet in new ways.