In January 1971, two Standard Oil Company of California tankers collided by the Golden Gate Bridge, just outside San Francisco Bay, resulting in an oil spill. Seeing the oil-soaked birds washed up on the shore made me take the unusual step of giving up using motorised vehicles, choosing only to walk.
Walking as a response to an oil spill didn’t seem a stretch to me, but in California, where cars ruled, to my friends, it seemed crazy. It challenged the status quo, and it was grist for argument.
I lived in a small village, Inverness, on the Point Reyes peninsula, 40 miles north of San Francisco. I was a transplant from Philadelphia and a college dropout searching for the cultural revolution that The Beatles and other pop musicians promised. I donned a flower child’s faded blue jeans and variegated tie-dyed uniform. I still wasn’t comfortable in my black skin.
I called my mother and told her I had given up riding in motorised vehicles and how happy I was. “You know if you’re really happy, you don’t have to say so,” she said. I could hear my dad in the background asking why I hadn’t done this when I was 16, the age you could get your driver’s licence.
My mother’s immediate question was, “How are you going to visit us?” I mumbled something about walking across America. I didn’t set out on that journey right away, but walking more allowed me to experience myself and the environment in a way I had not before. It became the doorway to a more profound change.
Several months later, on my 27th birthday, tired of the constant arguments about how one person walking wouldn’t make any difference, I stunned my friends, and myself, by taking a one-day vow of silence.
During that day, I realised that I hadn’t been properly listening. I would hear someone just enough to think I knew what they were going to say, and then I would stop listening even as they continued talking. I would be thinking about what I would say back to them. They were wrong, I knew the correct answer, or I could say it better. It didn’t take long to realise that I had stopped learning.
I didn’t ride in motorised vehicles for 22 years and I maintained a vow of silence for 17.
For the first few days, many friends said my silence was welcome, as I talked too much. But after a while, the novelty wore off. Some were tired of interpreting my mime, or reading scribbled notes on scraps of paper. I was happy to listen, play the banjo, and share my book of daily drawings.
I wrote to my parents in Philadelphia, explaining that I wouldn’t be calling on the phone. My mother wrote to tell me my dad would be coming on the next plane. He did show up and decided it was best to leave me where I was. He told my mum that “this wouldn’t work in Philadelphia”.
Travel and everyday life became more thoughtful. At human speed, I no longer rushed to make the 10-minute drive to the next town to visit friends or buy groceries. The five miles could stretch into hours of walking, noticing, painting, and sitting in whatever wilderness grew beside the road.
Invitations to stay for dinner meant I was an overnight guest. Unexpectedly, my relationships with my community grew deeper. Doors were left unlocked for me to find shelter, make a cup of tea, or have a snack. Some folks let me know that there was a spare room with a bed if, during my walks, there was a need.
In 1983, I began a silent walk across America with my banjo as my companion, to listen and learn. Along the way, I stopped to work and to study at universities. I invariably sat in the front of my classes, listening intently, not only to the remarks of my professors but to the questions and answers of my classmates; all served to foster my understanding. I mimed my answers and made class presentations with drawings using an overhead projector, writing on the chalkboard, sound recording, and a good dose of banjo music.
I earned three degrees, including a PhD in environmental studies. Did I ever want to quit my silence? The answer is yes. After each degree I questioned my ability to get the next. When the challenge of being alone, of geography and weather, seemed too much, I stopped until I realised our journeys are not for us alone.
I finally ended my silence in 1990 on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day to remind myself that I would now speak for the environment, because for me the meaning of environment had changed from being only about pollution to include people. If people were a part of the environment, then how we treat each other is our first opportunity to treat the environment sustainably or even understand what we mean by sustainability.
Following this hypothesis, we are mistreating the environment if we mistreat each other. Oppression and exploitation of one another manifests in the physical environment around us in the form of pollution, loss of habitat, and other environmental maladies. It contributes to and exacerbates the effects of climate change.
In 1991, I was hired by the United States government to help write oil tanker regulations. What had started as a way to protest oil pollution had evolved to include human rights, civil rights, gender equality, economic equity, and all the ways we relate. On my walk across the United States and the length of South America, I discovered human kindness, compassion and generosity were critical to my survival and, I believe, the key to the survival of us all.
Though my journey now includes using modern modes of transport – and talking -, each morning as a practice I sit in silence for 30 minutes.
And each day I continue to walk. In 2003, as a United Nations Environment Program special ambassador, I began a walk across Cuba. This year I visited Tanzania to prepare to walk the length of Africa. As I walk, I will be following the first steps of our ancestors.
HUMAN KINDNESS: True Stories of Compassion and Generosity that Changed the World by John Francis (What on Earth Books, £14.99) is out now.