Pioneering activist and National Geographic Fellow John “Planetwalker” Francis took a 17-year vow of silence to walk across America, inspiring thousands. Here he offers lessons on the need for reflection in one’s life.
John Francis was in his 20s when a 1971 oil spill
in San Francisco Bay jarred his comfortable life. Even as he joined the
volunteers who scrubbed the beaches and fought to save birds and sea
creatures poisoned by petroleum, he felt the need to make a deeper, more
personal commitment. As an affirmation of his responsibility to our
planet, he chose to stop using motorized vehicles and began walking
wherever he went. His decision was greeted with surprise, disbelief, and
even mockery—but it was only the start of a much deeper transformation.
A few months later he took a vow of silence that would last 17 years.
In 2008, National Geographic published Francis’s stirring memoir Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking; 17 Years of Silence.
It is the story of a man who, on foot and in silence, has rediscovered
rhythms in nature that most of us have forgotten, and learned to
communicate his understanding and empathy without speaking a word. He
walked across the Pacific Northwest, crossed the Sierra and Rocky
Mountains, and traversed America from coast to coast. Along the way—and
without a word—he earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in science
and environmental studies and a Ph.D. in land resources.
an effort to share his insights with others, Francis founded
“Planetwalk,” a non-profit educational organization dedicated to raising
environmental consciousness and promoting Earth stewardship.
Planetwalk’s work transcends cultural, social, and political boundaries
by fostering communication and research between young people,
scientists, and environmental practitioners through a global network and
educational programs. In 2010, Francis became the first National
Geographic Education Fellow.