Silent for 17 years, Planetwalker John Francis lends his voice as visiting professor

February 7, 2011

Two decades ago, John Francis arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison while under a vow of silence, completing a Ph.D. without speaking a word.

No longer silent (in fact, he is a distinguished public speaker), Francis returns to the university this fall with much to say, sharing the lessons of his journey across the country and the world as a silent advocate for environmental stewardship.

A visiting associate professor for the 2011-2012 academic year, Francis will lead a capstone course for undergraduate students in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, along with a graduate seminar.

Personal transformation

After witnessing an oil spill caused by a tanker collision in San Francisco Bay in 1971, Francis was compelled to make a personal commitment against pollution and chose to stop using motorized transportation. Several months later, to end the arguments he found himself getting into about the power of one person's actions, he took a vow of silence.

For the first time, Francis says, by being silent he really began listening — and learning. He set out on a pilgrimage, heading north from California across the Pacific Northwest, crossing the Sierra Nevada and Rocky mountains and continuing east, studying the environment as he walked from coast to coast with little more than a backpack, a banjo and a tent.

Communicating through only gestures and the written word, along the way Francis earned three degrees in science and environmental studies, including a Ph.D. in land resources ('91) at the Nelson Institute, where his research on managing oil spills coincided with the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

His expertise on oil spills drew the attention of the U.S. Coast Guard, who recruited Francis in 1991 (now speaking again) to develop oil spill regulations. But after 14 months with the Coast Guard, Francis was drawn back to travel, sailing and walking through the Caribbean and then walking the length of South America as a goodwill ambassador to the World's Grassroots Communities for the United Nations Environment Program.

His non-motorized lifestyle lasted twenty-two years and his silence seventeen — chronicled in his memoir "Planetwalker. 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence." A film based on his biography is currently in production, and a second book from Francis is also forthcoming.

Still walking (for) the Earth

Since 2005, Francis has been retracing his cross-country route, backtracking from Cape May, N.J., to Point Reyes, Calif. In an annual Earth Day expedition he sets off from where he stopped the previous year (currently Prospect, Ohio), walking for five days with about a dozen participants.

They examine development and differences in the landscape, gather environmental measurements and anecdotal data, and conduct live satellite broadcasts, all to continue development of Planetlines, a multidisciplinary environmental studies curriculum based on the walking pilgrimage, which Francis and his nonprofit organization Planetwalk are building for K-12 schools and universities.

As part of his spring capstone course at UW-Madison, some Nelson Institute students may be able to join Francis on the 2012 Earth Day Planetwalk. If his recent visit to campus is any indication, he'll have an enthusiastic pool of volunteers for that leg of the journey.

Sitting down with students to tell of his experiences and to discuss his upcoming professorship, Francis drew their interest immediately with his cheerful, warm spirit. They listened intently as he shared stories and answered questions, lighting up as he told about the characters he met throughout his adventures, about leading a class through pantomime as a then-silent teaching assistant at the University of Montana-Missoula, about the day he began to speak again (in 1990, at a 20th anniversary Earth Day celebration in Washington, D.C.), and about reaching Madison by foot in 1987, the recipient of an advanced opportunity fellowship.

"I'm so thankful to be able to come back and hopefully give back," he told the crowd.

Today, citing his metamorphosis as an environmentalist, Francis emphasizes a broader, more inclusive view of the environment, focused on how we can transcend cultural, social and political boundaries to help protect the Earth and each other and how we can each make a difference — one step at a time.

"If we are all part of the environment, then how we treat each other is our first chance to live in a sustainable way," he said. "Make the first step and just keep on until we change and the world changes around us."