John Francis: The Man Who Said Nothing


May 2007
The Ecologist


Browse in West Marin

John Francis spent 17 years walking… in silence. His pilgrimage is testament to the fact that you don’t have to speak to be heard and that the tools to combat global warming are in all our hands.

We would see him almost every day, a large man pushing a stroller along the road near our house. We had just moved here – to the northern California coast, about an hour north of San Francisco. It was winter, with its drizzle and fog. Still the man walked, with a long easy gait that flowed through his entire body, as though he was carried forward by his own momentum as much as by muscular exertion. This was John Francis, I discovered, and he had walked quite a ways. The story has been told often in the US media of late. In the early 1970s he was living out here, amidst the rolling ranchlands and postcard beaches. Two oil tankers collided in the fog near the Golden Gate Bridge. Eight hundred and forty gallons of crude oil poured into San Francisco Bay and spread up the coast. People flocked to the beaches to help. Birds died in John’s hands as he tried to rescue them from the ooze.

It was an event that changed lives, a kind of environmental 9/11. That there is a National Seashore here today, instead of the freeway and development that were planned, is a result largely of that spill. But at the time John heard the same inner arguments most of us do. He was busy, he had a band to manage, a life to live. He could change his life, make different choices, but don’t we need systemic change? What difference could one person really make?

Then something else happened, something more personal. A close friend died when his boat overturned in the Pacific. The resistance between the thought and the act appeared now as so much self-justifying noise. ‘I realised that if there was something worth doing I’d better do it now,’ John recalled, ‘because there was no guarantee there would be a tomorrow.’

John stopped using motorised transport of all kinds, inconvenience and all. He walked everywhere. San Francisco, which is around 40 miles away, would take two or three days. He found to his surprise that many people took this as a challenge, almost an affront. He was trying to guilt-trip them, they said. Couldn’t he do more good if he rode to San Francisco and got there faster?

Some people even said that he was helping people who drove gas-guzzlers. By not using gas, he was making gas cheaper for them. John found himself arguing all the time with the people he met on his treks. The inner conflict had become an outer one.

On his 27th birthday, to quiet the contentious voices inside and out, he stopped talking. First it was one day, to give himself a break. That day turned into 17 years. During this time John walked across the USA and much of South America, carrying little more than a backpack and a banjo. He worked as a boatbuilder and did odd jobs. Along the way, he managed to get an undergraduate degree and then a PhD in environmental science. He taught a graduate seminar and gave lectures in mime. The Coast Guard hired him to rewrite the nation’s oil spill regulations in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster. John gave it a try, but he is not one for a desk job in Washington. He came back to Point Reyes Station – by way of South America – with a wife, Mattie. Then came Sam, who was in the stroller John was pushing when we first saw them on the road.

Speaking softly

John speaks now, in a gentle, soothing voice that has perhaps an echo of his father’s native Antigua by way of north Philadelphia. There is still a quiet that surrounds him, a calm and measured pace. Somehow he seems to be taking his time even when he is in a hurry. When you talk with John you find yourself slowing down a bit, your voice falling into stride with his. He uses cars and planes now, too. During his years on the road he used to check in with himself regularly and ask whether the silence still served a real function, or whether it had become a ritual, or even a hook on which to hang his pride. He never asked that of the walking. But then, outside a prison in South America, it struck him that he had become a ‘prisoner of planet walking’, as he once put it. ‘Sometimes we are in a prison that only we have the key for.’

So now he drives, and flies – a great deal, in fact. He is in great demand. A few years ago he self-published a memoir, Planetwalker, which has had an impact far beyond its actual distribution. There has been a steady current of media articles. A Hollywood producer has an option. The Sierra Club [the leading environmental group in the USA] has engaged him to make talks and walks around the country. The speech requests are non-stop.

At one level, Planetwalker is a meditative, on-the-road journal, in the American tradition of Blue Highways and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But indirectly, it touches our brooding concerns about the overheating of the atmosphere: both physical and socio-political. We know – many of us at least – that we are going to have to take big steps. We know that no manner of ‘policy’ can work if we aren’t working with it. We are weary of the tendentious noise of politics, the canine attacks, and wish people would just shut up (including, often, ourselves). John is the man who did these things – who went where we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to go. He shut his mouth and lived his calling instead. His story is an inspiration, yes; but it grips us with just a bit of the fascination of the accused.

Slowing down

John and I are friends. So are our sons. We chat often when we pick them up at preschool, and at other times around town. There is nothing unusual about this. Here in Point Reyes Station, just about everyone is John’s friend, it seems. When he walks along the main street, he has something to say to virtually everyone he encounters – not just a ‘hello’ but an actual conversation.

In a way this is John’s business – encountering people, being involved with them. Though he is becoming a symbol of environmental concern, he doesn’t talk that much about ‘the environment’ as such. I never have heard him rail about global warming or pesticides, or hold forth on legislation that ought to be passed.

People sometimes find this puzzling. ‘What does he actually stand for?’, a friend asked not long ago. She’s lived here for several years and can’t quite figure John out. It can take a while. Unlike many environmentalists, John dwells mainly in the particular. His approach to global warming and other problems is to relate to this one person, this one particular thing. He is less interested in the problem than in the people behind it – which means not just the corporations but ourselves as well.

I asked John once what his walking and silence had accomplished. He said that people had to change in order to deal with him. Invite John to dinner, and you had to be prepared to put him up for the night, or maybe two or three. You had to make arrangements in advance, and then without talking. When you dealt with John you entered his time zone; your clock slowed down to his. This included the US government. When the Coast Guard hired him for the oil spill regulation project, it had to wait two months for him to bike down to the nation’s capital from Vermont (it makes one ponder what would happen if the government and corporations had to wait for all of us). When he got to DC, a car hit his bike at an intersection. The paramedic in the ambulance didn’t know what to do with this strange man who insisted on walking to the hospital (he was talking by then).

‘Well, honey,’ she said, ‘if you would just suspend your principles for five minutes we can drive your butt to the hospital.’ She was exasperated, of course. But that encounter will linger in her memory. Who knows what might trigger it, and cause her to think: ‘That crazy guy, maybe he was on to something.’

This is John’s theory of social change. Change yourself, and you start to bring others along with you. The result is symbiotic, and self-reinforcing. ‘The community kind of changed with me to enable me to do this,’ John told a gathering at our community centre a few years ago. ‘It started to teach me how change happens in a non-confrontational way. This is how we are going to change the world.’

Manufactured isolation

There is a corollary to this view, which is that real change starts with individuals, one on one. ‘The environment is really about how we treat each other,’ John says. ‘The physical environment and the problems we see in it are a manifestation of how we treat one another.’ When I first heard this I thought it was a little sappy. But the more I think about it, the more I see the point. For one thing, a great deal of what is called ‘consumption’ today actually is a symptom of social isolation – manufactured isolation. The American suburbs, which are isolation farms, were touted by Herbert Hoover in the 1920s as a way to get Americans to shop more.

For this and other reasons, we are beset by emotional hungers for which consumption – sometimes literally, in the form of food – has become a conditioned and illusory response (some 25 per cent of Americans told a USA Today poll that they have no one they can confide in). The healing of the natural ecology will require the healing of the social ecology. Research has confirmed what most of us knew all along – namely, that happy lives are rich in human interaction, more than in stuff.

When John was walking and not talking, he encountered people in ways we rarely do today, swaddled as we are in the multiple cocoons of cars, iPods and all the ways money and technology insulate us from others. John walked naked, so to speak. He didn’t even have the clothing of speech, which is as much a means of deflection and defence as it is of communication. The result was the intimacy and authenticity of the unspoken. Perhaps it was akin to what people experienced long ago, when they had to send letters over long distances and then wait endless days for a reply. The bond grew in the wordless space.

One friend walked 20 miles to meet John halfway on his return from another city. ‘It was a gesture of friendship,’ he recalled later. His father would drive halfway across the country to meet him in Montana or South Dakota. (He and John’s mother thought he might have joined a cult. But one aunt observed, ‘He seems to do better when he doesn’t ride in cars or talk.’)

It is an intimacy that is almost impossible today with the constant chatter of email and cell phones. ‘It’s hard for some people to understand how not speaking can actually enhance communication,’ John told a local paper here. ‘It’s a stretch for the Western mind because [in that view] there has to be a listener for there to be communication. But I found that how you actually live on the planet, not how you say you live on the planet, is a form of communication.’

Environmentalism today is talk-heavy and science-heavy. We need the science, sure. But look at the climate change debate. It has turned into a battle of experts to which the rest of us are spectators – another version of the consumer marketplace. Yet does anyone really need a scientist to tell them that pouring gunk into the sky is going to have bad consequences of some kind, and that we had better clean up our acts? If they do, the evidence is not likely to convince them anyway.

To expect science to lead is like expecting intellect to lead; it is like trying to grow crops by the cold light of the moon. There is a need for the emotive energies that arise from the action itself. ‘It’s when you commit yourself to do something,’ John says, ‘it’s when you take that first step, and come off the sense of being an observer, and become a participant, that you start to change the world. You do one thing, and other things come of it. Then you start thinking.’

A hopeful man

John’s life is about to change again. As I mentioned, a Hollywood producer has taken an option on John’s story. Options are the proverbial dime a dozen, but this one is serious. Variety, the entertainment industry rag, reported that a prominent scriptwriter is at work. Big-name actors have been mentioned, Will Smith for one.

This leaves me ambivalent, to say the least. I am glad for John and the platform he could get. Still, this is Hollywood. What will it do to a story that is minor notes where the big screen wants major ones? Doesn’t anyone there grasp the contradiction in casting a big-name star to a role like this? And what does it say about our culture that we need a star to validate a story such as this in the first place? Is nothing permitted to be real until Hollywood pays someone millions of dollars to make a fictional portrayal of it?

I worry that by blowing its peculiar air into this story, Hollywood will diminish it. And I’ll admit it, I worry about losing John, too. I watch him a bit these days – watch for signs of drift into the celebrity orbit, and of looking past the folks in town to the bigger things ahead. So far I haven’t seen it; if anyone is grounded enough to resist those seductions it’s him. He still has time for everyone on main street, still seems unrushed even though he has much more to do.

John Francis is by nature a hopeful man. Maybe it’s from the years of walking, but he tends to trust the road ahead. One local put his impact this way: ‘People feel the issues are so large and grand that an individual can’t make a difference. Lots of people feel their stories are over. John represents the individual who believes his story is not over.’

Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute and is a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly and YES! Magazines