by Kevin Petersen, ’07
While browsing a local bookstore, I saw a picture on a hardback cover of a banjo-slinging, backpack-wearing, bearded man who I immediately recognized. It was John Francis, Ph.D., who I had read about just a short time earlier in a Sierra Club magazine. The book was Francis’ Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence, which was reprinted in April of this year by National Geographic.
While it does fall short of literary genius, with seemingly self-indulgent writing and a yearning to be deeply profound in every paragraph, Planetwalker does prove to be a very enjoyable tale of a truly interesting man and his story. In fact, I recommend it solely on this basis.
The story begins with Francis’ account of the 1971 San Francisco tanker spill that filled the bay with 800,000 gallons of oil. In his view, it was not just the oil companies and their tankers who were to blame, but the oil consumers also had their role. With this logic, Francis made the decision to give up riding in motorized vehicles all together. Shortly after, he also took a vow of silence in an attempt to learn to really listen and to put a stop to the stagnant arguments over his walking.
On foot and with strictly non-verbal communication, which includes miming, sketches and watercolors, banjo playing, and the occasional note-writing, Francis set out north from his Point Reyes home with an external frame pack on his back and banjo in hand, in an attempt to “raise environmental consciousness and promote earth stewardship and world peace.”
His coast-to-coast journey would take him from Point Reyes Station, California, in April of 1983, to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in Oregon, through Yellowstone National Park, and eventually to his hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he would touch the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in January of 1990, with stops at what seems like every small town in between. Francis’ journey would even take him through Cuba, through South America from Venezuela, through Brazil to Argentina, and even to the tip of Antarctica.
On his way, he founded the company Planetwalk, lectured in college classrooms across America, earned his B.S. degree from Southern Oregon State College, a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana-Missoula, and a PhD in Land Resources from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, mind you, all without talking. He was also appointed the United Nations Environment Program’s Goodwill Ambassador to the World’s Grassroots Communities and was recruited to work as the project manager for the United States Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act Staff, which would facilitate oil spill regulations. He even developed a close connection with the Waimiri-Atroari in Brazil.
When all is said—or perhaps “mimed” is better in this case—and done, Planetwalker proves to be a very worthwhile read that will undoubtedly leave the reader smiling and inspired. While Francis will be the first to admit he felt discouraged and his actions seemed futile at times, it is hard to read the book and not have the pervading feeling that one person really can change the world.
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