>FRANCIS RECOMMITED TO renew his vow of silence annually on his birthday. In 1990, though, basing his decision solely on intuition, he began speaking again -- on Earth Day. Francis selected that date as a self-reminder that, going forward, he would always be speaking for the environment. (The very next day, he was struck by a car near the Washington, D.C., hotel from where his first words in 17 years had been heard the day before. The following morning’s Los Angeles Times included a story about the environmentalist who, even though he was injured, refused ambulance transport and instead walked the 15 blocks to the hospital.)
Following completion of the OPA staff gig with the Coast Guard, Francis sailed to Antigua and then on to South America. After spending six months in Barbados to attend a UN conference, he arrived in Venezuela in September 1994. It was there that Francis had another life-changing experience. While walking in Venezuela one day, he found himself on the business end of an M16 assault rifle held by a nervous prison guard who couldn’t understand him. At that moment, on a dusty road in South America, Francis realized that his decision to abandon motorized transportation “had become a prison, and only I could set myself free,” he says.
It was time, once again, to adjust. A few days later, for the first time in more than two decades, Francis squeezed his tall frame into a car. (Today, he drives a Toyota Prius.)
His years on foot had served a purpose, though: They had helped him to reconnect with the rhythms of nature.
Francis now looks back and laughs at how he had to figure things out for himself. In a country where so many of us circle the store parking lot twice to subtract a few footsteps, he had limited options for counsel and advice on his unconventional tactics.
As I talk with Francis, the irony of my reporting process hits me full force: I traveled across the country, at a severe carbon penalty, I assume, to spend just a few hours with a man who dotes on the environment. (I comfort myself by noting that I did, at least, rent a compact car for the drive out to Point Reyes Station.)
I share the irony of the moment with Francis while we sit at a little café across from his office. But a conversation with him is quickly relieving. There’s not a shred of preachiness, not an inkling of righteous judgment during any part of it. In his mind, Francis is just like the rest of us -- somebody who is always trying to sort things out.
“So you can look at it all and laugh at yourself,” Francis says. “You can laugh at the idea of your own purity. The reason all this works, the reason I’m able to do what I’m doing, is that everybody else is still doing what they are doing. … But that doesn’t mean that it can’t change. I can see there are more and more people all the time thinking green, [thinking about] how we can do things differently.”
Francis came to understand that his actions never occur in a vacuum: A letter he mails won’t summon a time-travel visit from the Pony Express; it will be ferried by mail, truck, or plane. Humble shoe leather can carry him 20 miles to a restaurant, but food on the plate has likely arrived via truck.
Part of his journey was about attaining a balance, patiently figuring out where his part fits in with the bigger picture.
“I really understand that environment is about pollution, it’s about loss of species, loss of habitat, overpopulation,” he says. “And … it’s about climate change and nuclear proliferation. It’s about all these things.
“But now there’s another element. And that element is about us being part of the environment. It’s about human rights and civil rights. It’s about economic equality and gender equality. It’s about how we treat each other when we meet each other.”
Maybe that should be a no-brainer. But it took years of being on the road and hundreds of worn-out shoes for Francis to truly achieve clarity on how it all intersects. If we truly care for one another, he explains, then leaving Mother Earth a better place for the next fellow will be as natural as saying hi to each other. “Our first opportunity to treat the environment well,” he says, “is with the next person we see.” Ironically, the man who’s spent a lifetime developing these concepts is never quite convinced that he’s right -- about anything. Years of silence taught him the value of patiently hearing the viewpoint of the other side. Francis never wants to sound like he has all the answers.
“Based on my own experience, my own life, I can say that it may all look like a sacrifice,” he says. “It may look like you’re suffering when it’s raining and you are walking. But look what you can get from all that. Look where you can take yourself from that.”
Francis took himself all across America, across the world, and back. And he took himself to a place where one man could truly and remarkably make a mighty difference.