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His own silent spring

The Nation | COLUMN ONE

To protest pollution, John Francis gave up cars. In 1973, he quit talking. On Earth Day 1990, he finally spoke -- and hasn't stopped since.

January 23, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

Point Reyes Station, Calif. — IN his determined style, environmentalist John Francis juggles a busy speaking schedule at schools, colleges and Earth-friendly conferences nationwide.

He's in such demand in large part because from 1973 to 1990, Francis refused to utter a single word, stubbornly keeping a vow of silence as a protest against pollution. He also swore off motor vehicles and walked wherever he went.

Francis engaged the modern culture he sought to change. A five-string banjo strung across his back, looking like a bearded roustabout from a Woody Guthrie anthem, he hiked across the country. He worked odd jobs to pay his bills and even taught classes without talking.

He stopped along the way to get bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees, all in science and related environmental studies. He wore out 100 pairs of shoes.

Some people, including his own family, questioned his sanity. Still, Francis slowly gained national notoriety. He became the subject of hundreds of newspaper and TV stories in the communities he passed through. He was asked to give silent speeches in many towns.

Never compromising, he communicated in a colorful flurry of pantomime, eye contact, scrawled notes, poems, watercolors and banjo tunes.

For years, he didn't laugh. Instead, when the urge struck him, he slapped his knee in a gesture of mirth that unsettled many friends. When a college music composition instructor insisted he sing scales, Francis found a middle ground: He hummed.

Now he is 60, and wherever he goes, people ask about The Journey. Was he haunted by his own thoughts? How hard was it to begin speaking again after all those years?

"The first thing people want to know is, 'How did you make a living?' " he said. "They'll say, 'You talked out loud to yourself, right?' But I never did that."

People often ask if he went mute to shut the world out. But that wasn't the goal at all.

*

IN 1972, Francis drew the line on so-called modern progress.

Incensed by the havoc caused by an oil spill in San Francisco Bay, he decided to give up his "60-mile-an-hour habit." He lived in Marin County and began walking everywhere. At the start of his vow, Francis wasn't entirely sure what he was trying to accomplish. He hoped people would follow his lead in forgoing motor vehicles, but no one did.

Then one day he stopped talking.

"The silence was really meant to be for one day -- as well as a gift to my community because I felt I talked too much -- not to prove anything," he said. "As it went on, I realized that the vow of silence was really a gift to myself."

As Francis notes in a self-published book he wrote about his travels, even his own father questioned his so-called word fast.

"Things are difficult enough for black folks without you tying a stone around your neck," Francis' book relates his father, John, saying. "What do you think you're doing? Man, just stop this foolishness and start driving and saying something, because right now you ain't saying anything."

Still, his choice launched Francis on an odyssey.

In 1983, he began what he envisioned would be a silent one-man walk around the world. Along the way, he communicated with a mix of fluttering hands, bobbing, nodding and facial expressions.

Other times, he showed a piece of paper explaining his quest.

\o7"This is to introduce John Francis, who gave up the use of motor vehicles not long after an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1972.... Since 1973, John has maintained a vow of silence."

\f7His slip-ups were rare. Once he excused himself after accidentally burping in front of a fellow shopper in a grocery store. Alone in some motel, watching Charlton Heston as Moses raising his hands to part the Red Sea, he involuntarily gasped, "Oh, my God!"

Some people he met disdained him as another misguided wanderer looking for attention. Others offered him food and shelter. When money ran low, he worked odd jobs such as boat builder and printer. He sold paintings and watercolors he'd drawn on his travels. He played his banjo for handouts.

Along the way, he educated himself. He applied for scholarships and other funding. While he studied for his bachelor's degree in general studies at Southern Oregon State College in Ashland, locals impressed by his silence urged him to run for City Council. He declined.

Later, while earning his master's degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana, Francis taught classes without talking. He earned a PhD at the University of Wisconsin studying the societal costs of oil spills and their cleanup.

His classes were often a frustrating exercise in charades. "Sometimes, what the class thought I was saying wasn't what I meant," he said. "But what we finally agreed upon was better than what I meant."

Some professors wondered if Francis' antics were a way to dodge coursework. Others challenged him to his face.

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