Photograph by Becky Hale
John Francis was in his 20s when a 1971 oil spill in San Francisco Bay jarred his comfortable life. Even as he joined the volunteers who scrubbed the beaches and fought to save birds and sea creatures poisoned by petroleum, he felt the need to make a deeper, more personal commitment. As an affirmation of his responsibility to our planet, he chose to stop using motorized vehicles and began walking wherever he went. His decision was greeted with surprise, disbelief, and even mockery—but it was only the start of a much deeper transformation. A few months later he took a vow of silence that would last 17 years.
In 2008, National Geographic published Francis’s stirring memoir Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking; 17 Years of Silence. It 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 walked across the Pacific Northwest, crossed the Sierra and Rocky Mountains, and traversed America from coast to coast. Along the way—and without a word—he earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in science and environmental studies and a Ph.D. in land resources.
In an effort to share his insights with others, Francis founded “Planetwalk,” a non-profit educational organization dedicated to raising environmental consciousness and promoting Earth stewardship. Planetwalk’s work transcends cultural, social, and political boundaries by fostering communication and research between young people, scientists, and environmental practitioners through a global network and educational programs. In 2010, Francis became the first National Geographic Education Fellow.
Watch video of an evening with John Francis from April, 2011 where he shared his amazing story of walking the planet and offered insights about the transformative power of silence. The event took place before a live audience at Toby's Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station, California, where his incredible journey began. Sponsored by Point Reyes Books.
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Frustrated with his experiences in environmental inaction, Francis decided to effect change by taking a radical personal stand—he stopped using motorized transportation and took a vow of silence that endured for 17 years.
Listen to John Francis
Hear an interview with Francis on National Geographic Weekend.
00:11:00 John Francis
Many people can’t imagine remaining totally silent for a single day. National Geographic Fellow John Francis, author of the book Planet Walker, didn’t speak for 17 years. During this time he walked across the United States, using his banjo to communicate. Francis tells Boyd about his cross-country journeys on foot during these years and the challenges and discoveries that he faced along the way.
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