Worth Talking About: Silence

The devastation following a large oil spill might naturally prompt anger, grief, frustration—or an effort to learn why it happened so as to better avert the next one. For conservationist, author, and National Geographic Education Fellow John Francis, the collision of two Standard Oil tankers near the Golden Gate Bridge in 1971, and the subsequent harmful effects he witnessed in San Francisco Bay—dead seabirds, fish, and seals; thousands of people trying frantically (and in many cases futilely) to save animals and keep oil from the beaches—prompted a more dramatic response. Francis hung up the keys to his car and walked everywhere he went … for the next 22 years.

After getting in one too many arguments with people he met while walking, he pledged to stop talking for a single day. That day, his 27th birthday, stretched into 17 years of silence.

John FrancisFrancis went on to earn the nickname “Planetwalker” (also the title of his first memoir), crossing the country on foot and earning a Ph.D. without speaking a word. Since deciding to talk once more in 1990, he has become a powerful icon and spokesperson for environmental issues, sound energy choices, and listening to others. (See his post “Oil on the Water” elsewhere on the News Watch blog.)

His new book, The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World, extolls the benefits of listening and silent meditation as means of building relationships, improving health, achieving personal tranquility, and noticing both the sounds and the people at the fringes of our perception. It also includes “Lessons in Silence”—activities to help readers hone their listening skills. Here’s an excerpt from the first lesson, “Listening for the Ragged Edge”:

First, find a quiet place. If you are lucky enough to be in a wilderness area or a national park where there is a kind of quiet that few of us get to experience, that would be great. But for many of us a city park will do, or even a bench out on a quiet street. Now, close your eyes and listen for all the sounds that you can easily hear and identify.

Next, listen for the sounds that become faint, and then more faint, until you can no longer hear them. Do they fade in and out before they are completely gone? That is the ragged edge.

Now listen for the sounds that are coming to you. They will fade in and out before the sound is sustained. When the sound is fading in and out, you are in effect listening not only to the sound, but also to the silence, the ground on which the sound is built. From here we can reflect and contemplate phenomena.

You can chat online with Francis at a live event tomorrow evening at 7 p.m. PDT/10 p.m. EDT. If you’re in the San Francisco metropolitan area, you can also join the live audience at Toby’s Feedbarn in Point Reyes Station, where his journey began. Francis will share his story of walking the planet and offer insights about the transformative power of silence. Online guests will have an opportunity to use text chat to ask questions.

Follow National Geographic News Watch for more “Lessons in Silence” from John Francis, and get his new book.


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