John Francis Spoke for the Environment Without Uttering a Word in 17 Years

FOR 17 years John Francis said a lot, but never said a word.

He took a vow of silence one day in California to stop "the chattering inside my head" because he wanted to know real silence.

When he saw two tankers collide and spill 840,000 gallons of oil near San Francisco, he said "no" to riding in cars - or any internal-combustion machine.

Who is John Francis, and why was he practicing such major denials in a word-filled world so heavily crisscrossed with speeding machines?

Today he talks quietly about his life as Planet Walker, a man on a pilgrimage around the world to raise environmental consciousness. He is also 1 of 6 designated goodwill ambassadors for the United Nations Environment Programme, and soon will leave on a sailboat for the Caribbean to launch an environmental program for schoolchildren. Partial funding has come from the Maryland chapters of Rotary International.

"I refer to myself as an environmental practitioner," he says, "because the interrelationship of everything means you must practice what you believe."

When he took his vow of silence he was already walking in northern California. He began to hand out cards explaining his silent mission. He also played the banjo while he traveled, wrote for his newsletter called Planet Walker, and did watercolors.

In 1983 he decided to call himself Planet Walker. He continues to shun cars or other engine-driven machines. So far he has walked an estimated 15,000 miles on his stop-and-start trip, and has been featured on national TV, dozens of local stations, and in newspapers and magazines. "Being black has never been a problem on the road," he says.

He has stopped for longer at the University of Montana, where he earned a master's degree in environmental studies (and was a nontalking teaching assistant), and at the University of Wiscon-sin at Madison, where he earned a doctorate in land resources.

He did not talk while he earned his degrees. He used mime, slides, notes, taped interviews, lots of writing, and occasional help from sign language; the administrators at two universities discovered that his presence actually promoted more student discussions.

"They knew I wasn't not talking just because I didn't want to talk to people," Francis says. "I was experiencing silence. Because you have to act things out, you can't be formal, and take yourself too seriously. People really become inventive."

His decision not to speak went from month to month, at first; then, each year at his birthday, he asked himself if he should continue in silence. The answer was yes for 17 years.

Today he calls silence a "new land," or a "realm." He says, "I've known other people who have tried not talking, but it's more an issue of being silent." To those who doubted his, or anyone's, ability to stay silent for years, Francis says one has to be in the right frame of mind.

"One of the effects of my silence," he says, "was to end those kinds of conversations you have in your thought about `Did I say the right thing to so and so?' or `Should I have said this or that?' Those inner conversations went away. I didn't need to decide what I was going to say. I wasn't going to say anything. After being quiet for 17 years, I've learned how to listen to other people, and not respond to defend myself."

Francis says when all the traditional conversations fell away, "what I was left with was me." Admitting the difficulty of explaining the full inner impact of 17 years of silence, he says, "The silence is still there; it won't go away. I speak from that silence."

When he finally decided to speak again, he gathered family, friends, and a few newspaper reporters on Earth Day in 1989 in Washington, D.C. "I was so used to not speaking," he says, "that I didn't know if I would just start. I had to make an event of it. My first words were, `Thank you for being here.' I thought someone behind me had said the words, and I actually turned around to see if there was someone there."

Speaking again, he landed a temporary job as an environmental analyst for the US Coast Guard in Washington, D.C. Because his doctoral dissertation was on oil-spill assessment, he worked on two projects: developing a way to measure damage to natural resources, and an analysis of the risk of deep-water ports.

Although his current project is not fully funded yet, Francis will use a chartered 72-foot yawl in the Caribbean as a floating classroom for six students. The curriculum, he says, will help them identify problems, develop solutions, and share the information via donated Apple computers.

"People everywhere have been wonderful," he says. "I've been able to support myself and still raise funds for the trip. My object is to spread goodwill and facilitate partnerships between the business community and grassroots community organizations on environmental projects."

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