Earlier this year, I got an email from an editor at On Wisconsin magazine, asking if I would be interested in writing a profile of an environmental activist named John Francis, who spent 17 years without talking, and 22 years without riding in a car, train, or plane. I had never heard of On Wisconsin (I was well into the story before I discovered that the name was a reference to the UW fight song), but I had heard of John Francis. In fact, we had been friends in 1980, when I was a teenager.
As I explain in the piece:
"When I first met Francis, twenty-eight years ago, he was living in Ashland, Oregon, and he was undoubtedly a local personality. I was a sixteen-year-old high school student, and Francis was then in his mid-thirties, but we were both mentored by the same teacher, the poet Lawson Inada, who taught at Southern Oregon State College, and we had friends in common. I remember Francis as a gentle, humorous presence who communicated with whistles and gestures and sometimes by writing on a pad of paper."
My boyfriend at the time was a poet who used to host "Write to Music" groups at his house. We'd listen to records and write poetry and then John would leave to walk back home. I was a passionate and political teenager, but I don't think I ever knew why he didn't talk or ride in cars. It was just something he did. It was only when we reconnected for the article that I learned the whole story, which you can read by clicking here.
This week, as the important issues of the election are buried in a barrage of pointless and meaningless allegations, it's worth learning about John Francis's political journey. It was an oil spill that inspired him to give up motorized transportation, and it was political bickering that inspired him to stop talking.
"I got to the place where I was arguing so much with people about it [his choice not to ride in cars], that I came upon my birthday, and I decided I was just not going to speak for one day," he recalls. "And that really changed my life. The first thing I learned was that I was not listening to anyone. I already knew what I thought was the answer."
The oil economy is one of the crucial things on the agenda this election: climate change, drilling in Alaska, the economic impact of our fuel dependence. Maybe it's time for those who want to serve their country to stop throwing around sound bites and really start listening.
As Francis says, environmentalism is about a lot more than polar bears and caribou. "It's really about how we treat each other," he explains. "Absolute bottom line. Because if we are part of the environment, and we treat ourselves so badly, what we do manifests in the physical environment."