In Review

Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time by John Francis

Earthlight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological Age by Cindy Spring and Anthony Manousos, Eds.

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause by The Boston Women's Health Book Collective

Black Gold filmed, directed, and produced by Marc and Nick Francis


Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time
by John Francis
Elephant Mountain Press, 2005; 280 pages; $24.95;
Order through Planetwalk website
reviewed by Jonathan Rowe

I would see him almost every day, a large man with a long rolling gait, pushing a jogging stroller along the road near our home. It was a stride that you noticed for some reason, a kind of purposeful amble, the walk of a man who knew where he was going–or perhaps, why he was going–and in his own sweet time, thank you.

We had just moved out here to the Northern California coast. I didn't know that this was John Francis, and that these daily walks to town with his new son Sam were the latest leg of something that had begun more than three decades before. John had witnessed a massive oil spill in San Francisco Bay. Sea birds had died in his hands when he tried to rescue them from the ooze.

He decided then to forsake motorized transportation. Not long after that, to quiet the contentious voices inside and out, he had sworn off talking too.

John kept his silence for 17 years. During that time he walked across the U.S. and much of South America; along the way he managed to get undergraduate and graduate degrees in environmental science. The Coast Guard hired him to write new oil spill regulations in the wake of the Exxon Valdez. One thing led to another, and he ended up back here in West Marin, where it all had started back in the late 1960s.

One of John Francis' watercolors from
the road.
One of John Francis' watercolors from the road.

John is a friend now. Our sons are friends too. We chat often when we pick them up at pre-school, and at other times around town. I think that's part of why I did not get around to reading John's memoir, Planetwalker, until now. I knew John, and I had heard the story. Or so I thought.

What I didn't know—one of many things, it turns out—is that John can write like this. Planetwalker has a limpid grace that is as quiet as the watercolors (his) that accompany the text. The voice is honest and without guile. There is a rightness to almost every word, a just-so quality. The images are not contrived, but seem to grow up out of the story itself.

“In the early years, when my silence was new, I seemed to have a palpable need to revisit my decision. It was virgin territory, this silent landscape, a narrow path through a ragged bramble. It twisted and turned uneasily up, down, and around in surprise and loneliness. I ached with old muscles unused and the growth of new ones. Words piled onto me. The later years have become more comforting, and silence more familiar, with watercolor views to everywhere. Meaning is rooted in action and lives, movement, the passing of clouds, the clarity of eyes.”

Planetwalker has been described as a social statement, which it is. But it is something more basic first—a journal of experience, told in a voice that has broken free to a remarkable degree from the noise and self-talk that besets us all.

John Francis leaves
Marin County, April 1983. Photo by Art Rogers.
John Francis leaves Marin County, April 1983. Photo by Art Rogers.

I often have wondered what would happen to a mind that forsook the outlet (indulgence?) of spoken expression. Like John, I once harbored thoughts of joining a religious order to cleanse myself and still the anger that was running riot in my head. I imagined that the self-talk would increase, like repressed sexual energy in the Freudian model.

Instead, it seems that the opposite occurred. Knowing that he was not going to respond verbally, John gradually ceased to stew over his own verbal responses. Instead of listening out of half of one ear the way most of us do while we formulate our brilliant rejoinders, John learned to listen.

Planetwalker is a listener's journal. The “I” is minimal; the interest more on the unfolding scene than on the “me” who is engaged in it. At one point, early on, John is stopped by two men in a pick-up truck. They do not appreciate his presence in their parts, and their form of address–“Boy”–tells us why.

“I am thinking that maybe these guys are lost, and the thought is amusing. In fact I know that they are not lost. We all are where we are meant to be. I know this from the very core of my being as the driver's right hand comes from beneath his seat, revealing the dark gunmetal of a .44 revolver, the barrel of which he places against my head. In this moment of crystal clarity I recognize the face of death. He is like an old friend I had forgotten, but who is always there.”

We know already how it's going to come out. John is here to tell the story. Still the scene is chilling, all the more because the account is so spare. John's silence gives it a dreamlike quality and makes him more vulnerable, like a man with no arms. The episode bristles with racial tension. But John doesn't name it. He conveys instead of saying, and in doing so, he reaches a place in us that speeches can't.

John Francis and his son Sam in 2003. Photo by Art Rogers. Point Reyes, 2003.
John Francis and his son Sam in 2003. Photo by Art Rogers. Point Reyes, 2003.

John is not given to speeches. He has strong views, but is chary with opinions. He tends rather to deflect them and turn the conversation in an unexpected direction. This is partly I think from a mischievous streak. He likes to keep people just a little bit off balance. But more, he feels instinctively uncomfortable with a comfortable opinion. And he likes to keep his options open. Who knows what might turn up at the next turn of the road?

I asked John once what his walking and silence had accomplished. He said that, among other things, other people had to make changes in order to accommodate him. If someone invited John for dinner, for example, they probably would have to invite him to spend the night as well. That one night might turn into two or three. Meetings had to be arranged far in advance; it would take a couple of days just to get to San Francisco. When you dealt with John, your time slowed down to his.

To communicate was not a casual matter. There were mime, notes scribbled on scraps of paper, the banjo John played as he walked for hours on end. Telephones were not much use. I didn't ask about this specifically, but I suspect that letters loomed large. That is not the worst thing.

John did not leave people where he found them. Even the paramedic in the ambulance that picked him up after a bicycle accident in Washington, D.C., had to deal with his insistence on walking to the hospital. “Well, honey,” she said, “if you would just suspend your principles for five minutes, we can drive your butt to the hospital.” She was mocking, but she will remember that encounter. Who knows where that memory might lead?

This is John's theory of social change. Don't lecture people. Change yourself and you will start to change the world. He himself is not a joiner. The one organization he is active in out here to my knowledge is not environmental. It is the local Lion's Club. His starting point for saving the environment—this is the one thing he says over and over—is to treat other people well.

John talks now, in a soft and gentle way, an echo perhaps of his father's native Antigua by way of West Philadelphia. There is still the quiet that surrounds him, the listening, the offbeat and unexpected response. John does not so much tell you when you are wrong as enable you to hear it for yourself. You find your voice slowing down a bit, your mental stride getting into synch with his.

Planetwalker has this same effect. It is the antidote to the smarmy self-dramatization that has defined the memoir in recent years. The story is going to reach a wide audience, it appears. A Hollywood producer has optioned the movie rights. Variety reported recently that a prominent scriptwriter is on the job. The names of well-known actors have come up.

This leaves me conflicted to say the least. I am happy for John and the platform this will give him. But Hollywood? The story is all minor notes where the big screen wants major ones. It is about small things made big by the eyes that see them—the spaces between, where the silence is. Can someone in that land of brag and pitch —or anywhere else—write a screenplay about not talking?

John is not concerned. He'll be walking regardless. In the end, Planetwalker is a book of trust. We trust John's voice, and he trusts the road to take him where he needs to go. “Something will come up,” he likes to say. “It always does.”

Photo of Jonathan Rowe

Jonathan Rowe, a YES! contributing editor, is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute.
John Francis is talking again after 17 years of silence. His nonprofit group, Planetwalk, raises awareness about the environment and how one person can make a diffference.

Excerpt from Planetwalker ::

I am surprised at the arguments that my giving up driving and riding in cars has caused in the community. Even though many people talk about wanting not to ride in cars because of the oil spill, everyone still does. ... In some instances I am told, “The reason you're doing this is just to make the rest of us feel bad.” Granted, there is some truth to this. I naively expect at least part of the community to park their cars and pickups and, like the Pied Piper's children, walk off with me into an environmental utopia. This does not happen. However, the chief criticism the community has is put in the words of a close friend. “John,” she says. “You are just crazy. One person walking is not going to make a difference in reducing air pollution or oil spills. In fact, it's just going to mean more gasoline for everyone else.” The comment gives me pause. Maybe I am crazy. How can one person make a difference?

Book cover of Earthlight
Earthlight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological Age
by Cindy Spring and Anthony Manousos, Eds.
Friends Bulletin, 2007; 360 pages; $20.00; order through Earthlight website
reviewed by Carol Estes


“How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” K. Lauren DeBoer invokes this question by Stanley Kunitz to introduce this beautiful collection of essays, interviews, and poems about spiritual ecology, all originally published in the Quaker magazine, Earthlight.

How shall the heart be reconciled to the loss of the giant sequoias? DeBoer asks. The buffalo? Our 20,000 fellow species that are gone for good?

How, indeed. The authors featured here have all plumbed the deep sorrow of our “ecological age,” as well as the joyful abundance and mystery of our world. Each guides readers down a different path to a tender, if bittersweet, spiritual relationship with the Earth.

Susan Tweit writes of “Picking Up Roadkill” as a spiritual practice. Joanna Macy describes the process she calls “The Great Turning,” through which “we begin to see the world as our body, and (whether we say the word or not) as sacred.” In discussing the Great Work that humans must undertake to live in harmony with the earth, Thomas Berry writes, “Humans, more than any other living form, invent themselves.” The unspoken question of this anthology is this: can we reinvent ourselves in time?

Carol Estes is a human right activist, YES! contributing editor, and guest editor of this issue.

Book cover of Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause
Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause
The Boston Women's Health Book Collective
Touchstone, 2006; 368 pages; $15.00; ordering information
reviewed by Marcy Bloom

The Boston Women's Health Book Collective has had an incredible influence on the lives of women throughout the world. I still vividly remember, as a young feminist coming of age in the 1960s, how exciting it was to have information about our bodies that we could finally trust. Our Bodies, Ourselves was written by women for women and, for those patriarchal times, this was truly revolutionary.

Now, we baby-boomer women are encountering another life stage, and with it, new questions and health needs. We want to be healthy, sexy,
vibrant, attractive, and productive as we enter this new phase of womanhood. The Boston Women's Health Book Collective comes to guide us once again. Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause helps women sort through the information overload with clear and comprehensible language in an empowering and accessible format.

This well-researched and well-organized book debunks the endless myths of menopause and aging by providing the medical, emotional, psychological, and societal context of the menopause journey. In our youth-obsessed society, menopause is still far too frequently viewed negatively. This book challenges that view by demonstrating that menopause is a normal and positive part of a woman's life, a catalyst for a new source of female power, and a healthy transition that leads to the emergence of a completely evolved and unique woman with a treasure of accumulated wisdom.

While keeping the focus on the positive, the book does not overlook women's concerns about aging and our vulnerabilities—will we become invisible and devalued “old bags” with aging skin, weak muscles, sagging breasts, dry vaginas, facial hair, constant hot flashes, decreased sexual desire and desirability, and limited mental capacity? These concerns are tackled openly with up-to-date and concise information.

With a friendly and empathetic tone, the book includes a diverse array of candid first-person menopause stories. The varied cultural and spiritual beliefs of menopause are addressed. For example, while white women tend to perceive menopause as more of a medical problem, “African-American women are more likely to view the cessation of menstruation as a relief.

By openly and positively addressing women's concerns about menopause, this book prepares us to become better advocates for our lives and our health during this life-changing transition.

Beyond simply empowering individual women, Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause adheres to the feminist adage that “the personal is political.” The book's final chapter, “Knowledge is Power,” is a call to action that documents the growing number of women in the United States who are experiencing or about to enter menopause. As our numbers continue to grow, we can become a powerful force to advocate for political and societal changes that will support women's natural evolution through all stages of life.

Marcy Bloom, a freelance writer based in Seattle, is a life-long advocate for reproductive freedom and was recently awarded the 2006 William O. Douglas Award by the Washington chapter of the ACLU.

In the opening scene of Black Gold, a documentary by British brothers Marc and Nick Francis, the camera pans a cavernous warehouse, where row upon row of burlap sacks of coffee beans are piled on palettes receding into an indefinite gloom. The sacks have accumulated in the Coffee Export Processing Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, because the price of coffee on the international market has fallen to a 30-year low, the result of the 1989 collapse of the International Coffee Agreement that once regulated price.

The Francis brothers explore the complex impacts and dynamics of this problem by oscillating between a close-up story of the plight of individual farmers, who receive just a few cents of profit from each pound of coffee sold, to an overview of the international coffee trade and culture.

The constant that unites these two disparate worlds is Tedesse Meskela, an Ethiopian businessman who moves skillfully between the coffee farmers' cooperative union and the international trade shows where he peddles their Fair Trade product. His passion for his country's high-quality coffee is rivaled only by his deep concern for the well-being of impoverished farmers who grow it.

By following these diverse aspects of the coffee trade, the web of global economics that binds us becomes indelible. Memorable images include the contrast between the New Yorker poised in a doorway to slurp an expensive Starbucks concoction and the painfully thin child turned away from an Ethiopian feeding clinic because stretched resources necessitate a heart-rending triage: the child is malnourished, but not severely enough to receive help.

While the Francis brothers present a stark contrast between the conditions of coffee producers and Western consumers, they do so without overt editorializing. However, viewers should not mistake the filmmakers' restraint for lack of passion. It is through the patient accretion of detail that the grotesque imbalance of the coffee trade, as well as the possibility for change, comes home.

Dee Axelrod, a former senior editor for YES! Magazine, is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest.

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