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His own silent spring

Times Staff Writer

IN his determined style, environmentalist John Francis juggles a busy speaking schedule at schools, colleges and Earth-friendly conferences nationwide.

He’s in such demand in large part because from 1973 to 1990, Francis refused to utter a single word, stubbornly keeping a vow of silence as a protest against pollution. He also swore off motor vehicles and walked wherever he went.

Francis engaged the modern culture he sought to change. A five-string banjo strung across his back, looking like a bearded roustabout from a Woody Guthrie anthem, he hiked across the country. He worked odd jobs to pay his bills and even taught classes without talking.

He stopped along the way to get bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, all in science and related environmental studies. He wore out 100 pairs of shoes.

Some people, including his own family, questioned his sanity. Still, Francis slowly gained national notoriety. He became the subject of hundreds of newspaper and TV stories in the communities he passed through. He was asked to give silent speeches in many towns.

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Never compromising, he communicated in a colorful flurry of pantomime, eye contact, scrawled notes, poems, watercolors and banjo tunes.

For years, he didn’t laugh. Instead, when the urge struck him, he slapped his knee in a gesture of mirth that unsettled many friends. When a college music composition instructor insisted he sing scales, Francis found a middle ground: He hummed.

Now he is 60, and wherever he goes, people ask about The Journey. Was he haunted by his own thoughts? How hard was it to begin speaking again after all those years?

“The first thing people want to know is, ‘How did you make a living?’ ” he said. “They’ll say, ‘You talked out loud to yourself, right?’ But I never did that.”

People often ask if he went mute to shut the world out. But that wasn’t the goal at all.

*

IN 1972, Francis drew the line on so-called modern progress.

Incensed by the havoc caused by an oil spill in San Francisco Bay, he decided to give up his “60-mile-an-hour habit.” He lived in Marin County and began walking everywhere. At the start of his vow, Francis wasn’t entirely sure what he was trying to accomplish. He hoped people would follow his lead in forgoing motor vehicles, but no one did.

Then one day he stopped talking.

“The silence was really meant to be for one day -- as well as a gift to my community because I felt I talked too much -- not to prove anything,” he said. “As it went on, I realized that the vow of silence was really a gift to myself.”

As Francis notes in a self-published book he wrote about his travels, even his own father questioned his so-called word fast.

“Things are difficult enough for black folks without you tying a stone around your neck,” Francis’ book relates his father, John, saying. “What do you think you’re doing? Man, just stop this foolishness and start driving and saying something, because right now you ain’t saying anything.”

Still, his choice launched Francis on an odyssey.

In 1983, he began what he envisioned would be a silent one-man walk around the world. Along the way, he communicated with a mix of fluttering hands, bobbing, nodding and facial expressions.

Other times, he showed a piece of paper explaining his quest.

“This is to introduce John Francis, who gave up the use of motor vehicles not long after an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1972.... Since 1973, John has maintained a vow of silence.”

His slip-ups were rare. Once he excused himself after accidentally burping in front of a fellow shopper in a grocery store. Alone in some motel, watching Charlton Heston as Moses raising his hands to part the Red Sea, he involuntarily gasped, “Oh, my God!”

Some people he met disdained him as another misguided wanderer looking for attention. Others offered him food and shelter. When money ran low, he worked odd jobs such as boat builder and printer. He sold paintings and watercolors he’d drawn on his travels. He played his banjo for handouts.

Along the way, he educated himself. He applied for scholarships and other funding. While he studied for his bachelor’s degree in general studies at Southern Oregon State College in Ashland, locals impressed by his silence urged him to run for City Council. He declined.

Later, while earning his master’s degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana, Francis taught classes without talking. He earned a PhD at the University of Wisconsin studying the societal costs of oil spills and their cleanup.

His classes were often a frustrating exercise in charades. “Sometimes, what the class thought I was saying wasn’t what I meant,” he said. “But what we finally agreed upon was better than what I meant.”

Some professors wondered if Francis’ antics were a way to dodge coursework. Others challenged him to his face.

“People came up and said they knew somebody, a grandfather or daughter, who was deaf and couldn’t speak. They said, ‘You can talk and you won’t. You’re a phony,’ ” Francis recalled. “I never argued with them. I tried to listen.”

Still, the silence spoke to many.

“The power of John’s statement is its intimacy,” said Roger Dunsmore, a former University of Montana professor. “His choice of silence was deeply personal. He managed to teach something to just about everyone he came in contact with. About the environment and all the jabber of modern society.”

Most students took Francis’ odd teaching methods in stride.

“At first I didn’t think it was fair our leader didn’t talk, and that the other groups had ones that did,” one student wrote in a teacher evaluation. “But all of that has changed and I feel that I have learned a lot more than I would have otherwise.”

Meanwhile, Francis’ idea of “the environment” changed. “At first it was all about oil pollution, loss of habitat, cutting down trees,” he said. “It evolved into a deeper meaning: how humans treat each other when they meet, opening dialogues so we can talk about things like saving the Earth.”

On each birthday, Francis asked himself a difficult question: Did his vow still feel right? Should he start talking again?

He chose Earth Day 1990 to break his long silence. The night before, he did his last silent interview, appearing on “The Charlie Rose Show” on PBS.

Then came the news conference in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, where Francis uttered his first purposeful sentence in 17 years: “Thank you for being here.”

As his book, “Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time,” describes: “The words are almost inaudible, the voice unrecognizable. I turn to see where the words have come from. There is no one standing behind me. I have spoken them. I wait for the lightning to strike, but it does not.”

The day after the news conference, Francis was hit by a car in Washington, D.C., suffering a shoulder injury. But he stuck to his no-vehicle vow and talked an ambulance crew into letting him walk to the hospital.

Still, his life changed in unexpected ways when he reentered the speaking realm.

He was named a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Program. The U.S. Coast Guard hired him to help write oil spill regulations after the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. He was in New Jersey when a Coast Guard official called to offer the job, asking him to report to Washington, D.C., immediately. Francis offered to ride his bike.

“OK,” the exasperated official answered. “But hurry.”

After that job, Francis kept walking. He crossed parts of Cuba and South America, reaching his starting point by sailboat.

One day in Venezuela, he had an epiphany that prompted him to ride in motor vehicles again after 22 years. It came while passing a barbed-wired penitentiary.

“I realized I had put myself in this box, this prison,” he said, “and that I had to let myself out.”

In the end, Francis’ critics came around -- even his father.

One day the elder Francis, an electrical lineman and foreman, turned to his son and suddenly said: “You know, I don’t think you’re crazy anymore.”

*

ROBERT Holt was driving to meet the mime-like character he hadn’t seen in nearly two decades. In 1989, as a reporter for the Gettysburg Times, he profiled John Francis as he passed through the historic Pennsylvania town.

Last year, en route to the reunion, Holt realized that he had never heard Francis speak.

“I stopped and bought him a tape recorder,” said Holt, now a freelance writer. Francis accepted the gift, but Holt immediately saw his error.

“How could I give this man a machine?” he said. “His whole message is, ‘Let’s see how much we can do in life without all the machines harmful to our world.’ ”

Over the last two years, Francis has begun retracing the steps of his epic cross-country trip -- walking sections bit by bit, time permitting. This time, though, he invites others, like Holt, to walk with him. And he’s using Holt’s tape recorder -- as well as a digital recorder for podcasts from the road.

On this latest walk, he’s coordinating with groups such as Rotary and the Lions Club to arrange speaking gigs on issues such as climate change and the environment, trying to do what he calls “creating a community.”

Through his nonprofit group Planetwalk -- www.planetwalk.org-- he advocates Earth stewardship through human interaction. Francis may write another book on his second national walk. A feature-length film about his life is also in the works.

Meanwhile, he flies 100,000 miles a year for speaking engagements and works as an environmental consultant.

“In the end, John was honest with himself,” said Dunsmore, the former University of Montana professor. “Can one man change the world by not talking? Maybe not. But John’s little statement has snowballed. He’s reaching people.”

Today, Francis’ dreadlocks are gone, and he drives a hybrid car around Point Reyes Station, where he lives and keeps an office. And The Journey continues.

His parents are both dead. Now he’s the father of two young sons. This summer, he’ll join Native American activists on a 2,000-mile canoe trip on the Yukon River to highlight Alaska’s environmental causes.

At home, Francis starts each day with a four-mile walk, a solitary figure who still prefers navigating life at the contemplative speed of 3 miles an hour.

When he stopped talking all those years ago, the aim wasn’t to “shut out people, but to experience my own silence.”

And silence taught Francis something profound: the art of listening. He no longer tunes out speakers while mentally preparing his next remark. He won’t stop listening altogether when he hears something that doesn’t jibe with his own beliefs.

“I am still learning to listen,” he said, “learning not to be afraid of hearing different voices, learning because I don’t believe you ever really get there.”

*

john.glionna@latimes.com


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