>FRANCIS BEGAN HIS soul-searching journey at the age of 24, after he witnessed the collision of two oil tankers that resulted in 840,000 gallons of sludge being spilled into the San Francisco Bay. Saddened and disgusted, Francis joined other locals in the grim cleanup efforts.
It was an epochal moment for the hippie-dippie student working odd jobs while stationed at ground zero of America’s counterculture revolution; he was suddenly forced to measure his own complicity in the expanding environmental duress. He attempted to assuage his sadness through a deeply personal commitment to abandon motorized transportation.
The decision was born of impulse, but he stuck with it doggedly even as the broader ramifications became clear. For instance, how in the world would he visit his family in Philadelphia? There were also the quarrels and quibbles with friends and townsfolk. One man can’t make a difference, they insisted, so what’s the point of this mad mission?
Then, about two years later, Francis woke up on his 27th birthday and decided to give a “gift” to himself and to the townspeople: He quit talking for the day.
And he liked it. So he stretched the silence to a week, and he found that he learned more through the benevolent filters of silence. Ultimately, he remained quiet for 17 years. He says words slipped only three times during the entire period.
His vow of silence led Francis to a meaningful discovery: For most of his adult life, he had not been listening.
“I only listened long enough to determine whether the speaker’s ideas matched my own,” Francis tells me.
In 1974, as Francis, already a local celebrity and increasingly receiving regional acclaim, was returning from a five-day hike to Sacramento, an epiphany overwhelmed him, and he decided to take his stand a step further. He describes the experience in Planetwalker: “I decide to embrace my condition, to grab the tail of the tiger and use the notoriety to further the cause of environmental protection. In this moment, I am transformed from a man expecting to live a quiet and idyllic life on the shores of Tomales Bay into an activist. I decide to use my life for change and to learn what this means.”
Soon after making that decision, in an effort to better understand nature’s ways and to begin his self-described “environmental education,” Francis embarked on the first of his many travels, a 500-mile hike up the coast to Oregon.
In 1983, driven partially by the desire to visit his aging parents in Philadelphia and partially by a hunger for still more environmental education and stewardship, he decided to walk across the country.
Armed with a banjo (he taught himself to play), a big backpack, a few note cards to help explain his mission, and a substantial arsenal of hand signals, Francis wandered eastward for six years, mostly on foot but sometimes by bicycle. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana (from 1984 to 1986) and a PhD at the University of Wisconsin (1987 to 1989), where he studied the societal costs of oil spills and clean-ups. He paid for it all through grants that he solicited the old-fashioned way: through hand-written letters. He also worked odd jobs, once as a printer and another time as a boat builder, and he sold his paintings and drawings -- not that he needed much money, as he was living cheaply and limiting his carbon footprint (and this was before most people had heard the term). He also taught a few classes, though he stayed ever true to his stubborn vow of silence. It all took patience and creativity, along with a lot of pantomime, eye contact, gestures, nods, banjo tunes, and, when all else failed, written notes.
“Here I am, at this place where I’m walking and I’m not speaking, and it’s such an education,” Francis tells me of his journey. His words are steady, slow, and considered. His voice sounds remarkably young for a 62-year-old man -- although I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering his vocal cords had a 17-year break. “So, I’m walking all over creation, in the wilderness areas, in the cities, and I’m looking for my own answers [about life]. What I’m holding on to is that it’s something about environment, and it’s something about pollution.”
During this time, Francis became the subject of hundreds of newspaper articles; sometimes he even became fast friends with the journalists. Silent TV interviews, like the one Francis did with Charlie Rose for PBS ( just before he resumed speaking), proved unique but effective. Eventually, his burgeoning fame and formal education paid off handsomely. First, in 1990, he was named a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme. And soon after that, the United States Coast Guard came calling. Having learned of Francis’s work at the University of Wisconsin and from fellow environmentalists, they wanted Francis’s help in writing new oil-spill regulations. They were working on a new Oil Pollution Act (OPA).
In New Jersey at the time, Francis assured his new employer that he would hurry and start on this important endeavor as soon as he could get to Washington, D.C. -- by bicycle.