19:25
TED2008

John Francis: Walk the earth ... my 17-year vow of silence

Filmed:

For almost three decades, John Francis has been a planetwalker, traveling the globe by foot and sail with a message of environmental respect and responsibility (for 17 of those years without speaking). A funny, thoughtful talk with occasional banjo.

- Planet walker
John Francis walks the Earth, carrying a message of careful, truly sustainable development and respect for our planet. Full bio

(Music)
00:12
(Applause)
00:55
Thank you for being here.
01:01
And I say "thank you for being here" because I was silent for 17 years.
01:04
And the first words that I spoke were in Washington, D.C.,
01:12
on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.
01:16
And my family and friends had gathered there to hear me speak.
01:18
And I said, "Thank you for being here."
01:23
My mother, out in the audience, she jumped up,
01:27
"Hallelujah, Johnny’s talking!"
01:28
(Laughter)
01:31
Imagine if you were quiet for 17 years
01:33
and your mother was out in the audience, say.
01:35
My dad said to me, "That’s one" --
01:39
I’ll explain that.
01:42
But I turned around because I didn’t recognize where my voice was coming from.
01:45
I hadn’t heard my voice in 17 years,
01:50
so I turned around and I looked and I said,
01:53
"God, who's saying what I’m thinking?"
01:55
And then I realized it was me, you know, and I kind of laughed.
01:59
And I could see my father: "Yeah, he really is crazy."
02:04
Well, I want to take you on this journey.
02:09
And the journey, I believe, is a metaphor for all of our journeys.
02:13
Even though this one is kind of unusual,
02:16
I want you to think about your own journey.
02:20
My journey began in 1971
02:25
when I witnessed two oil tankers collide beneath the Golden Gate,
02:29
and a half a million gallons of oil spilled into the bay.
02:35
It disturbed me so much
02:39
that I decided that I was going to give up riding and driving in motorized vehicles.
02:43
That’s a big thing in California.
02:50
And it was a big thing in my little community of Point Reyes Station
02:53
in Inverness, California, because there were only
02:59
about 350 people there in the winter – this was back in '71 now.
03:01
And so when I came in and I started walking around, people --
03:07
they just knew what was going on.
03:12
And people would drive up next to me
03:14
and say, "John, what are you doing?"
03:16
And I’d say, "Well, I’m walking for the environment."
03:18
And they said, "No, you’re walking to make us look bad, right?
03:22
You’re walking to make us feel bad."
03:26
And maybe there was some truth to that,
03:28
because I thought that if I started walking, everyone would follow.
03:30
Because of the oil, everybody talked about the polllution.
03:35
And so I argued with people about that, I argued and I argued.
03:37
I called my parents up.
03:44
I said, "I’ve given up riding and driving in cars."
03:46
My dad said, "Why didn’t you do that when you were 16?"
03:48
(Laughter)
03:51
I didn’t know about the environment then.
03:53
They’re back in Philadelphia.
03:54
And so I told my mother, "I’m happy though, I’m really happy."
03:56
She said, "If you were happy, son, you wouldn’t have to say it."
04:00
Mothers are like that.
04:03
And so, on my 27th birthday I decided, because I argued so much
04:06
and I talk so much, that I was going to stop speaking
04:14
for just one day -- one day -- to give it a rest.
04:20
And so I did.
04:24
I got up in the morning and I didn’t say a word.
04:27
And I have to tell you, it was a very moving experience,
04:30
because for the first time, I began listening -- in a long time.
04:33
And what I heard, it kind of disturbed me.
04:40
Because what I used to do, when I thought I was listening,
04:44
was I would listen just enough to hear what people had to say
04:47
and think that I could -- I knew what they were going to say,
04:50
and so I stopped listening.
04:55
And in my mind, I just kind of raced ahead
04:57
and thought of what I was going to say back,
05:00
while they were still finishing up.
05:02
And then I would launch in.
05:04
Well, that just ended communication.
05:06
So on this first day I actually listened.
05:10
And it was very sad for me,
05:12
because I realized that for those many years I had not been learning.
05:14
I was 27. I thought I knew everything.
05:20
I didn’t.
05:25
And so I decided I’d better do this for another day,
05:27
and another day, and another day until finally,
05:31
I promised myself for a year I would keep quiet
05:35
because I started learning more and more and I needed to learn more.
05:38
So for a year I said I would keep quiet,
05:42
and then on my birthday I would reassess what I had learned
05:44
and maybe I would talk again.
05:48
Well, that lasted 17 years.
05:50
Now during that time -- those 17 years -- I walked and I played the banjo
05:54
and I painted and I wrote in my journal, and
06:00
I tried to study the environment by reading books.
06:05
And I decided that I was going to go to school. So I did.
06:10
I walked up to Ashland, Oregon,
06:14
where they were offering an environmental studies degree.
06:16
It’s only 500 miles.
06:21
And I went into the Registrar’s office and --
06:23
"What, what, what?"
06:32
I had a newspaper clipping.
06:34
"Oh, so you really want to go to school here?
06:37
You don’t …?
06:39
We have a special program for you." They did.
06:41
And in those two years, I graduated with my first degree -- a bachelor’s degree.
06:44
And my father came out, he was so proud.
06:49
He said, "Listen, we’re really proud of you son,
06:52
but what are you going to do with a bachelor’s degree?
06:55
You don’t ride in cars, you don’t talk --
06:57
you’re going to have to do those things."
06:59
(Laughter)
07:01
I hunched my shoulder, I picked my backpack up again
07:03
and I started walking.
07:05
I walked all the way up to Port Townsend, Washington, where I built a wooden boat,
07:09
rode it across Puget Sound
07:14
and walked across Washington [to] Idaho and down to Missoula, Montana.
07:17
I had written the University of Montana two years earlier
07:22
and said I'd like to go to school there.
07:26
I said I'd be there in about two years.
07:29
(Laughter)
07:32
And I was there. I showed up in two years and they --
07:34
I tell this story because they really helped me.
07:37
There are two stories in Montana.
07:39
The first story is I didn’t have any money -- that’s a sign I used a lot.
07:43
And they said,"Don't worry about that."
07:46
The director of the program said, "Come back tomorrow."
07:49
He gave me 150 dollars,
07:52
and he said, "Register for one credit.
07:54
You’re going to go to South America, aren’t you?"
07:57
And I said --
07:59
Rivers and lakes, the hydrological systems, South America.
08:01
So I did that.
08:05
He came back; he said to me,
08:08
"OK John, now that you've registered for that one credit,
08:10
you can have a key to an office, you can matriculate --
08:14
you’re matriculating, so you can use the library.
08:17
And what we’re going to do
08:19
is, we’re going to have all of the professors allow you to go to class.
08:20
They’re going to save your grade,
08:26
and when we figure out how to get you the rest of the money,
08:28
then you can register for that class and they’ll give you the grade."
08:30
Wow, they don’t do that in graduate schools, I don’t think.
08:37
But I use that story because they really wanted to help me.
08:40
They saw that I was really interested in the environment,
08:44
and they really wanted to help me along the way.
08:47
And during that time, I actually taught classes without speaking.
08:49
I had 13 students when I first walked into the class.
08:54
I explained, with a friend who could interpret my sign language,
08:57
that I was John Francis, I was walking around the world,
09:03
I didn’t talk and this was the last time
09:05
this person’s going to be here interpreting for me.
09:06
All the students sat around and they went ...
09:09
(Laughter)
09:12
I could see they were looking for the schedule,
09:17
to see when they could get out.
09:19
They had to take that class with me.
09:21
Two weeks later, everyone was trying to get into our class.
09:25
And I learned in that class -- because I would do things like this ...
09:28
and they were all gathered around, going, "What's he trying to say?"
09:32
"I don't know, I think he's talking about clear cutting." "Yeah, clear cutting."
09:34
"No, no, no, that's not clear cutting, that’s -- he's using a handsaw."
09:39
"Well, you can’t clearcut with a ..."
09:43
"Yes, you can clear cut ..."
09:46
"No, I think he’s talking about selective forestry."
09:48
Now this was a discussion class and we were having a discussion.
09:50
I just backed out of that, you know, and I just kind of kept the fists from flying.
09:54
But what I learned was that sometimes I would make a sign
09:57
and they said things that I absolutely did not mean,
10:01
but I should have.
10:05
And so what came to me is, if you were a teacher
10:07
and you were teaching, if you weren’t learning
10:12
you probably weren’t teaching very well.
10:15
And so I went on.
10:17
My dad came out to see me graduate
10:19
and, you know, I did the deal,
10:21
and my father said, "We’re really proud of you son, but ... "
10:23
You know what went on,
10:25
he said, "You’ve got to start riding and driving and start talking.
10:27
What are you going to do with a master’s degree?"
10:30
I hunched my shoulder, I got my backpack
10:32
and I went on to the University of Wisconsin.
10:34
I spent two years there writing on oil spills.
10:37
No one was interested in oil spills.
10:42
But something happened --
10:44
Exxon Valdez.
10:47
And I was the only one in the United States writing on oil spills.
10:50
My dad came out again.
10:54
He said, "I don't know how you do this, son --
10:56
I mean, you don't ride in cars, you don’t talk.
10:58
My sister said maybe I should leave you alone,
11:01
because you seem to be doing a lot better
11:03
when you’re not saying anything."
11:05
(Laughter)
11:07
Well, I put on my backpack again.
11:10
I put my banjo on and I walked all the way to the East Coast,
11:12
put my foot in the Atlantic Ocean --
11:14
it was seven years and one day it took me to walk across the United States.
11:16
And on Earth Day, 1990 --
11:22
the 20th anniversary of Earth Day -- that’s when I began to speak.
11:27
And that’s why I said, "Thank you for being here."
11:30
Because it's sort of like that tree in the forest falling;
11:32
and if there's no one there to hear, does it really make a sound?
11:36
And I’m thanking you, and I'm thanking my family
11:39
because they had come to hear me speak.
11:42
And that’s communication.
11:44
And they also taught me about listening -- that they listened to me.
11:47
And it’s one of those things that came out of the silence,
11:53
the listening to each other.
11:57
Really, very important --
11:59
we need to listen to each other.
12:01
Well, my journey kept going on.
12:04
My dad said, "That’s one,"
12:06
and I still didn’t let that go.
12:09
I worked for the Coastguard, was made a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador.
12:12
I wrote regulations for the United States --
12:15
I mean, I wrote oil spill regulations.
12:18
20 years ago, if someone had said to me,
12:20
"John, do you really want to make a difference?"
12:24
"Yeah, I want to make a difference."
12:27
He said, "You just start walking east;
12:28
get out of your car and just start walking east."
12:30
And as I walked off a little bit, they'd say, "Yeah, and shut up, too."
12:33
(Laughter)
12:37
"You’re going to make a difference, buddy."
12:40
How could that be, how could that be?
12:42
How could doing such a simple thing like walking and not talking
12:45
make a difference?
12:49
Well, my time at the Coast Guard was a really good time.
12:51
And after that -- I only worked one year --
12:55
I said, "That's enough. One year's enough for me to do that."
12:58
I got on a sailboat and I sailed down to the Caribbean,
13:02
and walked through all of the islands, and to Venezuela.
13:05
And you know, I forgot the most important thing,
13:12
which is why I started talking, which I have to tell you.
13:16
I started talking because I had studied environment.
13:21
I’d studied environment at this formal level,
13:26
but there was this informal level.
13:30
And the informal level --
13:32
I learned about people, and what we do and how we are.
13:35
And environment changed from just being about trees and birds
13:41
and endangered species to being about how we treated each other.
13:44
Because if we are the environment,
13:50
then all we need to do is look around us
13:52
and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.
13:54
And so that’s the message that I had.
13:59
And I said, "Well, I'm going to have to spread that message."
14:03
And I got in my sailboat, sailed all the way through the Caribbean --
14:05
it wasn't really my sailboat, I kind of worked on that boat --
14:09
got to Venezuela and I started walking.
14:13
This is the last part of this story, because it’s how I got here,
14:17
because I still didn't ride in motorized vehicles.
14:20
I was walking through El Dorado -- it's a prison town, famous prison,
14:23
or infamous prison -- in Venezuela, and I don’t know what possessed me,
14:30
because this was not like me.
14:35
There I am, walking past the guard gate and the guard stops and says,
14:37
"Pasaporte, pasaporte," and with an M16 pointed at me.
14:44
And I looked at him and I said, "Passport, huh?
14:49
I don't need to show you my passport. It’s in the back of my pack.
14:53
I'm Dr. Francis; I'm a U.N. Ambassador and I'm walking around the world."
14:56
And I started walking off.
15:02
What possessed me to say this thing?
15:04
The road turned into the jungle.
15:09
I didn’t get shot.
15:11
And I got to -- I start saying, "Free at last --
15:13
thank God Almighty, I’m free at last."
15:17
"What was that about," I’m saying. What was that about?
15:24
It took me 100 miles to figure out that, in my heart, in me,
15:27
I had become a prisoner.
15:35
I was a prisoner and I needed to escape.
15:38
The prison that I was in was the fact that I did not drive
15:42
or use motorized vehicles.
15:48
Now how could that be?
15:50
Because when I started, it seemed very appropriate to me
15:52
not to use motorized vehicles.
15:56
But the thing that was different
15:58
was that every birthday, I asked myself about silence,
16:00
but I never asked myself about my decision to just use my feet.
16:03
I had no idea I was going to become a U.N. Ambassador.
16:11
I had no idea I would have a Ph.D.
16:14
And so I realized that I had a responsibility to more than just me,
16:18
and that I was going to have to change.
16:24
You know, we can do it.
16:26
I was going to have to change.
16:29
And I was afraid to change,
16:31
because I was so used to the guy who only just walked.
16:33
I was so used to that person that I didn’t want to stop.
16:36
I didn’t know who I would be if I changed.
16:42
But I know I needed to.
16:45
I know I needed to change, because it would be the only way
16:48
that I could be here today.
16:52
And I know that a lot of times
16:56
we find ourselves in this wonderful place where we’ve gotten to,
16:59
but there’s another place for us to go.
17:03
And we kind of have to leave behind the security of who we’ve become,
17:06
and go to the place of who we are becoming.
17:12
And so, I want to encourage you to go to that next place,
17:19
to let yourself out of any prison that you might find yourself in,
17:28
as comfortable as it may be, because we have to do something now.
17:33
We have to change now.
17:41
As our former Vice President said,
17:47
we have to become activists.
17:52
So if my voice can touch you,
17:56
if my actions can touch you, if my being here can touch you,
18:00
please let it be.
18:04
And I know that all of you have touched me
18:06
while I’ve been here.
18:11
So, let’s go out into the world
18:16
and take this caring, this love, this respect
18:19
that we’ve shown each other right here at TED,
18:22
and take this out into the world.
18:27
Because we are the environment,
18:29
and how we treat each other
18:34
is really how we’re going to treat the environment.
18:37
So I want to thank you for being here
18:42
and I want to end this in five seconds of silence.
18:46
Thank you.
18:59
(Applause)
19:01

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

John Francis - Planet walker
John Francis walks the Earth, carrying a message of careful, truly sustainable development and respect for our planet.

Why you should listen

One day in 1983, John Francis stepped out on a walk. For the next 22 years, he trekked and sailed around North and South America, carrying a message of respect for the Earth -- for 17 of those years, without speaking. During his monumental, silent trek, he earned
an MA in environmental studies and a PhD in land resources.

Today his Planetwalk foundation consults on sustainable development and works with educational groups to teach kids about the environment.

More profile about the speaker
John Francis | Speaker | TED.com