John Francis is an incredibly unique and gifted individual. He is a planetwalker – a man who walks the planet.
Listen to him above at a talk he gave at a TED conference.
For almost three decades, John Francis has been a planetwalker, traveling the globe by foot and sail with a message of environmental respect and responsibility – and for 17 of those years he did it without speaking.
John Francis walks the Earth in order to carry a message of careful, truly sustainable development and respect for our planet.
Over the years, he has walked tens of thousands of miles around the globe, crisscrossing the United States, and voyaging to Cuba, South America, Patagonia and Antarctica.
Born in 1946, Francis moved to Marin County, California as a young man. After witnessing the devastation caused by a 1971 oil spill in San Francisco Bay, he stopped riding in motorized vehicles, a vow which lasted 22 years from 1972 until 1994. From 1973 until 1990, he also spent 17 years voluntarily silent.
During this time he earned a Ph.D. in land management and traveled extensively, walking across the entire width of the lower 48 states of the USA as well as walking to South America.
His journey began on January 19, 1971, when two oil tankers owned by Standard Oil Company collided in San Francisco Bay, creating an enormous oil spill. After seeing the damage caused, John Francis decided that he wanted to stop riding in cars.
The following year, a neighbor of Francis’ died suddenly. Faced with a new sense of the uncertainty of life, Francis decided to act immediately and for the next 22 years refused to ride in motorized vehicles. Francis describes himself as having had an over-inflated sense of self-importance at this time, and says that he initially expected other people to follow his example and also forgo automobiles and other powered vehicles.
As Francis traveled about on foot, people would sometimes stop to talk about what he was doing, and he often found himself arguing with them, as well as with friends and acquaintances, about his decision to go on foot.
On his birthday in 1973, Francis decided to stop speaking as a gift to his community, to not argue for one day and instead listen to what others had to say. He found this so valuable that he continued to be silent the next day. This continued and he ended up not speaking for 17 years, with the exception of a phone call to his mother after 10 years of silence.
During this time, he communicated by writing and gestures, and also expressed himself by playing the banjo. He ended his vow of silence on Earth Day in 1990.
While he was silent, he completed three college degrees, culminating in a Ph.D. in Land Management from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
He walked to Ashland, Oregon to enroll in Southern Oregon University, and completed a B.A. there in a two-year program. Next, he walked to the state of Washington and built a boat, contacting the University of Montana and informing them that he’d like to enroll in a master’s degree program in about two years. He walked and sailed to Montana, and completed his degree there.
With little money, he audited classes but professors tracked his grades, and when funds became available to pay for the classes he had taken, they were put on his transcript for credit. As is common with graduate students, Francis taught classes while studying for his master’s degree.
Francis then walked to Wisconsin, where he took up his doctoral studies, focusing on the effects of oil spills. During his studies, the Exxon Valdez disaster occurred, which brought attention to his research. After completing his degree, he walked to Washington D.C.
In 1994, Francis decided he could be a more effective environmentalist if he began to again use motorized transportation. At the border of Venezuela and Brazil, he boarded a bus.
Today, John Francis is an expert on oil spills, tankers and other environmental issues.
And also in these times, Francis does talk and drive, but it’s all in the name of inspiring people to do as he has done – become a steward of the earth and a planetwalker.
This book is the story of a man who, on foot and in silence, has rediscovered rhythms in nature that most of us have forgotten, and learned to communicate his understanding and empathy without speaking a word.
He says of walking that, “part of the mystery of walking is that the destination is inside us and we really don’t know when we arrive until we arrive.”
Perhaps the Gulf Coast oil spill will create many more John Francis’. We surely will need them.
John Francis still lives in Marin County, CA, in Point Reyes Station, with his wife and two sons.
To learn more about John Francis and his organization Planetwalk, you can go to www.planetwalk.org.