What John Francis knows for sure

Self-Portrait: Courtesy of John Francis

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John Francis, on Silence
After witnessing an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1971, Francis (above, on one of his many walks) thought about how one person can make a difference. His talks with neighbors about his decision to stop using motorized vehicles often turned into arguments. "I decided to give my town a gift of my silence, to not speak for one day," he says. "I started learning things—the first was that I hadn't been listening." He chose to be silent for a year—and then 16 more. In 1982 Francis founded Planetwalk to raise awareness of environmental issues.

When I didn't speak, it allowed a more intimate communication. People let me touch them. I could tap them on the shoulder. I could grab their hand and write a word on their palm. I could physically move them to see something.

Silence is a practice. You don't just think, "Oh, I got it now."

You don't need words to say "I love you." My family and I communicated all the things we needed to when I was silent. 

As told to Jack Otter