JOHN FRANCIS’ SILENT PILGRIMAGE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION
Walking his talk
If we are awake to it, life’s humor is everywhere, as environmental educator, artist and banjo player John Francis, Ph.D., would be the first to agree.
On the overcast spring afternoon when I meet the author of Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step At A Time, at his pastoral home in Point Reyes Station, California, a large truck delivers a brand-new washer and dryer. In the ebb and flow of life, the man who walked more than 25,000 miles over the course of three decades, often camping under bridges and in farmers’ fields, has become a householder, with a wife, four-year-old son, and two-car garage. For Francis, it is the latest turn of the wheel in a lifelong pilgrimage promoting earth stewardship, environmental awareness and world peace, interdependent threads in life’s weave.
Following in the inspirational footsteps of such planetwalkers as Peace Pilgrim, Gandhi, and Satish Kumar, Francis set out on a remarkable spiritual journey in 1972 — synchronistically, the same year the United Nations launched World Environment Day. A year after finding his feet, he voluntarily relinquished his voice to discover a deeper language beyond words. He stopped speaking on his 27th birthday, which psychologists call the end of the “age of invincibility,” when we first feel life’s finitude.
Surrender is a pivotal element in pilgrimage, but the greater surrender for Francis came seventeen years later, when he consciously chose to re-enter the world of words, trusting himself to use them from a developed well of inner wisdom. He spoke again on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 1990, selecting the day specifically, “to remember that now I will be speaking for the environment.”
Bridge Over Troubled Water
In a sense, Francis surrendered his voice to find it.
A spiritual seeker from a young age, Francis attended Catholic school and seriously considered the monastery as a vocation, “but I couldn’t see the silence part,” he says with a grin. When he arrived in California from his native Philadelphia at the close of the ’60s, he had just dropped out of college for the third time.
He was studying Gandhi’s life and works when the call to his quest arrived, a sonic boom. Two oil tankers collided, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of crude into San Francisco Bay. This devastation to the water element shook the sensitive Pisces to his core. What could he do about it? An idea bubbled forth: “We could stop riding in cars!” But it seemed a monumental change to undertake.
Close to a year later, a fellow about his age drowned when the boat he and his family were in capsized in a sudden storm. To Francis, Jerry Tanner epitomized the good life: a beautiful wife and children, lovely home, great job, his whole life ahead of him. Now it was over.
If the oil spill was the impetus, Tanner’s death was the catalyst that catapulted Francis onto his path of purpose and out of motorized transportation for the next 22 years.
Initially, he simply knew he needed to explore what it meant not to use petroleum-based sources of travel. By 1983, his process had crystallized into Planetwalk, a non-profit organization, “dedicated to raising environmental consciousness and to promoting earth stewardship and world peace through pilgrimage.” When he set out on this phase of his journey, Francis planned on an 18-year walking and sailing pilgrimage around the world.
Into The Silence
It’s axiomatic that when one embarks on a journey of personal transformation, those who are not ready to travel with you — literally or metaphorically — will often have a difficult time assimilating your decision, and may try to undermine it. Francis found, to his surprise and dismay, that some friends and neighbors thought he was walking to make them “look bad,” or to prove he was somehow superior.
He grew tired of defending his choice, and, after spending his 27th birthday in silent contemplation, the days without speaking stretched to weeks and then months. He began to appreciate the lessons sprouting from silence. Instead of ending his silence, he deepened his commitment to it, communicating through mime and scribbled notes.
His motivation to become an “environmental practitioner” fueled every waking and walking moment. Aside from the incredible feat of walking without talking, meeting every challenge with creativity, panache and faith, during his pilgrimage Francis earned bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in science, environmental studies and land resources, respectively, from three different academic institutions.
Walking As Art Form
“Walking became an exploration into what it meant to live this way,” Francis explains of his early years on foot. Inverness, the community near Point Reyes Station where he lived at the time, is small, rural, and very interconnected. “Back then, people didn’t lock their doors. I would walk to places in town, and my friends would expect me to show up, whether they were home or not, let myself in, eat their food, take a nap, whatever I needed. I would always do something in exchange, such as wash the dishes or clean the bathroom, and later they’d say, ‘John, were you by here yesterday? We noticed the bathroom was clean and we figured it must’ve been you.'”
With travel now measured in footfalls rather than wheel rotations, Francis found, paradoxically, that he suddenly had a lot of time on his hands, since what might formerly have been a ten-minute drive now translated into an hour’s walk. His previous commitments that involved driving fell away.
He began drawing and teaching himself the banjo, becoming proficient at both. “All that walking was the ultimate music practice! Think about it: if I was going to walk somewhere that was ten miles away, and I walked at the rate of three miles an hour, that gave me three and a half hours to practice the banjo.” He’d also frequently stop by the side of the road to sketch the scenery.
Later, when he set out on his pilgrimage, music and art became sources of income as well as a friendly form of introduction. Francis was often invited to play in return for food or lodging, and appreciative listeners would fill his hat “to overflowing,” as one child exclaimed.
Vastness Of The Void
As he talks passionately about walking as a way to make connections, I have an epiphany: speaking and driving are the same. They are both fast, a way of whooshing through life at warp speed, asking, “How did I get here?” With walking, “When you get somewhere, the planet says to you, ‘You’re here.'” Walking and silence are deliberate; they keep us present with a rhythm that words and motors dash away.
“Silence creates space for an awareness, and for you to hear,” Francis says. “The void is so spacious, it frightens people. It’s scary to be with yourself in this way. You’re not sure what you’re going to discover, because it’s this place where anything’s possible. “Communication is work; it’s not easy, it’s not free,” he declares. “Listening is a huge part of it.” One of his first realizations from silence was how little he had listened to others up until then. He was ashamed of his arrogance: he had listened only long enough to determine whether he agreed with the speaker, and if not, to prepare his rebuttal.
“How We Treat Each Other When We Meet Each Other”
Francis met thousands of people on his pilgrimage, and maintains close ties with many of them.
“Relationships are so important to me,” he says, “We’re all on these journeys, and we share parts of them, then at some point we realize we’re going in different directions. We need to remember that we’re all walking with each other, all the time. We can wound by talking before thinking. It’s important to have the intention to not hurt, to understand everyone’s spiritual growth as well as our own.”
As his own journey expanded in later years into South America, Francis opened in wonder to, “how small the world is, how much a part of it we are, how much we are a part of each other.” The core concept he reiterated throughout our time together is, “How we treat each other when we meet each other. We’re always meeting ourselves. If we take advantage of someone else, then we’re just taking advantage of ourselves.”
Peace Expressed As Environmental Action
Asked about Wangari Maathai’s 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for environmental activism — the first time the Prize has recognized the critical link between environmental sustainability and world peace — Francis agrees that this is the larger truth of his life and work as well. “When I was studying for my doctorate in land resources, it all came to me. This wasn’t just about the trees, it wasn’t just about endangered species, or about pollution, it was about every human activity: how we treat each other when we meet each other. If it’s not about human rights and economic equity, then it’s not about the environmental movement.”
All life is sacred, and everything is interconnected. If we chop down our neighbor with words, we’re desecrating the environment as surely as if we had chopped down his tree. And if we clear-cut a forest, that’s an aggressive act — even if we’re peaceful and loving the rest of the time.
“Then the question becomes, ‘What is peace?’ If it’s not about the environment, taking care of our resources, civil rights, human rights, then—what’s peace? It’s beyond not fighting wars. The environmentalist Lynton Caldwell said, ‘The environmental crisis is an outward manifestation of a crisis of mind and spirit.’ It’s all interrelated — everything we do, everything we are,” Francis explains. We need to begin to more fully embrace what one of his role models, Gandhi, taught: be the change you wish to see in the world.
Becoming A Vehicle For Change
Francis seems the perfect person to ask about hybrid vehicles, electric cars, and whether a global energy emergency is imminent. Oil not only launched his pilgrimage; his dissertation topic was the natural resources damage assessment of oil spills, which later landed him a key position with the U.S. Coast Guard, writing and evaluating oil spill regulations.
While Francis doesn’t believe we’ll all have to start walking anytime soon, he counsels that just because there’s still oil to be recovered, this “should not to be a call for more gas guzzling, but an opportunity to really diversify our energy consumption. We need to change how we think and act in the environment. This is different from a technological fix. A cultural and spiritual shift is necessary,” he says with the conviction born of experience.
We need to rethink our automobile-dependent lifestyles, and create communities that enhance and promote other forms of transportation, so that it’s easier to travel without cars. And, of course, we must choose to embrace alternate modes of transit. Aside from the environmental benefits, walking and bicycling are health boosters. Francis still routinely walks about four miles a day, “just to get around,” he says.
Pilgrimage and Purpose
Pilgrimage is, by definition, a solitary journey. In India, pilgrimage is a sanctioned next step for men in midlife, after they’ve completed the path of the householder. Francis has done this in reverse, becoming a husband and dad in his 50s.
Clearly, it’s a non-linear process. Thomas Merton wrote, “The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey.” One wise elder Francis met during an early stage on his walk opined that when Francis had completed his inner work, he’d be talking and riding in cars again, but be “different somehow.”
“That’s the essence of the journey,” Francis says. “The lines will blur, you’ll take journeys within journeys. My walk is a journey within a much larger journey. When I started riding in cars again, I realized I hadn’t been revisiting my decision to not ride — this really highlighted for me the most important aspect of journey, of the goals we set. At the beginning, it was appropriate (not to ride); as time went on, I could feel that decision getting tighter and tighter around me — it was no longer a living, breathing decision on my part. I had to ask myself whether my choice to walk was taking me where I needed to go.
“We get identified by who we are and what we’re doing (in life), and have a hard time letting go, even if it’s no longer good for us.” This is what eventually happened with Francis’ commitment to eschew all forms of motorized transport, and it applies across the board. “For example, as environmentalists we might say, ‘If only developers would look at what they’re doing!’ We need to ask ourselves the same question! Maybe we need to do something differently as well.”
In a nutshell: don’t take your ideals and behaviors for granted, even if they seem above reproach. Do a periodic check-in to see if your actions still fit with your vision and values.
Planetlines: Environmental Education For The Next Generation
As the next step on his own path of service, Francis is developing Planetlines, an environmental, peace and community service curriculum based on the concept of pilgrimage. Planetlines will introduce high school and college students to the idea of using path as “transect” — observing what’s fifty feet on either side of you, getting to know your microenvironment as you walk. Students will sample water for turbidity and pH, measure precipitation levels, and various other activities to help them “sense” their environment, making continuous anecdotal entries in their journals.
This hands-on environmental research will help students realize how interconnected all strands are in the web of life, and how the seemingly small actions we take every day can have far-reaching effects on the environment and community resources, Francis explains. By developing a closer kinship with the land they live on and in, students may develop a deeper sense of how they can bring about positive change in their immediate community as well as in the world, through the choices they make every day in how they live.
What I found most fascinating in his description is the term for aggregating the students’ information on a map and interpreting it: ground truthing. Ground truthing translates all of the symbolic reference data into meaningful results — much like translating our day-to-day behaviors into environmental outcomes. I can hear it as enlightened cultural slang: “Dude, what’s your ground truth?”
Planetwalking Right Where Your Are
How can we begin to live as Planetwalkers in our own backyards?
“Walk with the intent to look for community service opportunities in your community, and in neighboring communities,” Francis responds. “You can clean up a vacant lot, find out why a house is abandoned and turn it into a homeless shelter, volunteer for a soup kitchen, create an urban garden, mentor a child.
“How we treat each other when we meet each other. This is where it starts.”
To find out more about Amara Rose, click here.