Easily dismissed as a hippie new-age environmentalist nut case, this memoir by John Francis gives us the inside view of an extraordinary man who spent 22 years walking and bicycling, rowing and sailing, without ever riding in a motorized vehicle. Seventeen of those years, he went without speaking. He tied these two decisions to a hope for a better environmental future for our planet, a way of remaining sane in an oil-dependent society.
Playing the banjo, making a watercolor drawing every day, and writing haiku poetry, Francis walked across the United States and later across South America, eventually becoming a respected expert on oil spill damage assessment and a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme, having earned college degrees along the way, including a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin.
Dr. Francis talks about pilgrimage, and refers to what philosopher Henry Bugbee calls “the moment of obligation in experience.” Having given up speech and motorized transportation, spending so much time in solitude, he struggles with the way society has defined him, a black man maturing in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Silence,” he says, “is a whole and independent phenomenon, subsisting in and of itself. In the silence, I rediscover who I am.” He quotes from Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions by Roderick Nash: “Wilderness … is a profound educational resource schooling overcivilized humans in what we once knew but unfortunately forgot.”
Carrying all he needs with him, he becomes something of a minimalist, one that carries a banjo and sketch book. He quotes Mildred Norman, known as the Peace Pilgrim, a woman who walked for peace for 28 years. “Just after dedicating myself to service, I felt that I could no longer accept more than I need while others in the world have less then they need. This moved me to bring my life down to a need level. I thought it would be difficult. I thought it would entail a great many hardships, but I was quite wrong. There is a great freedom in simplicity of living, and after I began to feel this, I found harmony in my life between inner and outer well-being.”
Small reproductions of his watercolors illustrate the book. If I may make a personal aside, one that caught my eye is of a professor at the University of Wisconsin teaching. On the caulk board behind him are the words “Physics, Poetry, and Philosophy.” This resonated with me since my degrees are in physics and philosophy and because, every week, I publish something like a poem.
The attitude of shared responsibility is one I will remember from the book, the idea that, if you use motorized transportation, you have some responsibility for every oil spill; that, if you use plastic, you have some responsibility for every piece discarded. This attitude apparently made Dr. Francis an effective environmental regulator when he worked for the U.S. Coast Guard. He did not blame polluters but recognized them as fellow polluters, people like himself, part of an oil-dependent society, trying to do better.