Wednesday, July 7, 2010

One Step at a Time

Sometimes, it's good to have some inspiration. Someone or a group of someones who do something so outlandish that you can't miss it's significance. Here's the story of a man who has spent much of his life living and breathing alternatives to oil-dependency.

When the Gulf oil disaster first hit the headlines, John Francis got a series of calls and messages from friends across the country offering condolences and apologies. Francis isn’t from the Gulf but he has spent years trying to answer the question that now looms large in public debate—what does it mean to end our addiction to oil?

It took an oil spill and a tragedy to get Francis to radically change his life. Francis grew up in a working-class African-American family in Philadelphia and moved to California as an adult. He was in his early 20s in 1971, when he witnessed the aftermath of a collision between two oil tankers in San Francisco Bay. The resulting spill coated shores from Berkeley to Marin with oil and killed thousands of birds and fish. That event and the death of a friend a year later profoundly shook Francis. He gave up driving and riding in motorized vehicles for 22 years.

One day, as an experiment, he stopped speaking and realized that the experience opened up deeper modes of communication with others. “From this new place [of silence] lessons come,” he writes in his memoir, Planetwalker. “The first is that most of my adult life I have not been listening fully.” He spent the next 17 years in silence, began a pilgrimage on foot across the country, pursued a Ph.D. in environmental studies in Wisconsin at one of the nation’s foremost graduate programs, and became an expert on oil regulations. He taught courses at the University of Wisconsin—Madison without speaking and took an oil regulations policy job with the U.S. Coast Guard without driving.

The journey has made Francis into a kind of moral, spiritual, and symbolic leader for the environmental movement. He considers himself to be living proof of the idea that a single person and simple actions can reach millions. He has since resumed driving, riding, and speaking, but continues to promote environmental education, walking, and personal empowerment, especially among children, youth, and college students, and through lectures across the country.

As a person who has never owned a car, and only driven a few times, I feel a kindredness with Mr. Francis. But his commitment to embodying a different way, as well as his ability to show how one can still be successful in the U.S. without being a driver, makes anything that I have done pale in comparison. And that's good. I'm glad to have been greatly outpaced.

What's profound about this man to me though is the vow of silence he held for 17 years. Stemming from experiences of arguing with others about his ideas, the vow of silence was a return to the deep listening that every spiritual tradition calls people do if they wish to fully awaken in this life.

Think about this. During the 17 years Francis didn't speak, he completed three college degrees, including a PhD. He taught graduate classes, and walked halfway across the country, from Oregon to Wisconsin, to enroll in his PhD program. In addition, he covered he entire "lower 48" states of the U.S. and also walked to South America during this time. And all the while he listened to others' stories, ideas, hopes, and fears, responding only through writing, gestures, or playing his banjo.

In 1994, Francis came to a crossroads, opening to the idea that he could be a more effective environmentalist if he again used motorized transportation. It feels like a koan in my own life right now, as I, too, have been considering the seeming contradiction between being eco-centric and being a licensed driver for the first time. I haven't decided yet, and have no plans to go out and purchase a car anytime soon, but I can see how standing apart from the driving culture as I have has been extremely valuable, and also creates certain limits that it might be time to transgress.

Francis still walks a lot. He even did an extended walk along the Great Ocean Road in Australia last year for a film being done by Tourism Victoria. This, in itself, speaks volumes - that the commitment to a way of life and expressing one's vision can outlast even actions that seem to contradict it.


Was Once said...

Thank you for your posting about Francis.
I wish I could be even more selective about my speech, but I am working on it, and it amazes me how much I don't say that manages to remind me to say less(out loud)

NellaLou said...

Good post Nathan. I too have never owned a car nor had a driver's license, though can drive in case of emergency. Haven't yet considered changing that but as I get older and perhaps when health begins to preclude walking everywhere I might get some kind of motorcycle.

Silence is one of the most interesting states of being.When one is in a place where few speak their language (verbally or culturally)there is a lot of time for silence and to observe and absorb. You've probably noticed that with your students.

One can sit without the sometimes)burden of constantly manufacturing (sometimes pointless) speech. Not a big fan of constant small talk.

It also helps when one does say something because words are considered and chosen with a little more care than with a chatterbox attitude.

That fellow is on to something.