“Planet Walker” John Francis spent 22 years of his life walking–17 years of them in silence.
“On January 17, 1971, I witnessed a crude oil spill of nearly a half-million gallons in the waters near the Golden Gate Bridge,” he writes in his book “Planetwalker.”
“The oil spill was my first experience with a major environmental insult.
“As I drove my car over the Golden Gate I felt some responsibility for the mess washing up on the shore. It was nearly a year afterwards, still feeling this responsibility, that I gave up the use of motorized vehicles and started walking.”
Months after he started walking everywhere, Francis took a vow of silence to demonstrate his conviction. For the next two decades he walked … and walked.
First he hiked across America from the Pacific to the Atlantic, then across Cuba and Brazil. “Planetwalker,” (National Geographic Books, $16.95), released today in softcover, describes the experience of his silent crusade, how it expanded into a quest to improve how humans treat each other, and how people can better communicate and work together to benefit the planet.
“I had begun a pilgrimage, an outer and inner journey, as part of my education dedicated to raise environmental consciousness, promote earth stewardship and world peace,” Francis writes.
The Importance of Listening
Walking in silence, Francis says, he learned the importance of listening. He ended his silence on Earth Day 1990, but not his pilgrimage.
I spoke to Francis on the phone earlier today. He is in the middle of retracing his epic walk around the United States, but in the reverse direction. “On this walk I can speak to people,” he told me. “I am retracing my steps to see what is different from my first journey–and to form a partnership with people and organizations on environmental issues.”
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For Francis there is no more important environmental issue than how humans treat one another. “The way to deal with all the other environmental problems,” he said, “is to treat each other well.” This is the first step toward treating the environment well.
Francis is also listening on his new walking tour, “something I learned to do well during my years of silence.”
He wants to hear what people think is important and their ideas for stewardship of the planet. What he hears will be used to help develop a curriculum for environment studies he is helping to develop for K-12 education.
John Francis has partnered with the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, an indigenous grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of the Yukon River Watershed. The YRITWC is comprised of 65 Tribes and First Nations in Alaska and Canada who rely on the Yukon River basin for survival.
YRITWC Assistant Director Jon Waterhouse told me today about the “Healing Journey,” a paddling trip along the river to visit and teach indigenous communities about climate change and the environment. Along the way a probe is dragged from a canoe to measure river water quality. “It’s adding modern science to tradition and our way of taking the pulse of the river,” Waterhouse said.
Francis and Waterhouse travel together in canoes because “John [Francis] can’t walk on water yet,” Waterhouse told me.
For both men, whether on foot or on the water, it is about the same sacred principle: Beyond the financial meltdown, world political turmoil, and other headlines, nothing is more important than the planet itself. “People have kind of forgotten that,” Waterhouse said. “It’s really about stewardship.”
“It’s all about relating to where you live,” Francis said. “I tell people to get out and walk and discover where they live.
“Get out there and so something, even if it is in your own backyard,” Waterhouse added. “You don;t have to go to the other side of the planet to help the environment. You can start in your own town.”
Said Francis: “We are the evironment. We are part of it. If we think that way and act that way and try to be good and kind and supportive, and listen to one another, that’s a good way to begin to help the environment.”
Planetwalk (John Francis’s Web site)
Yukon River Healing Journey