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