Interview with Dr John Francis
Interview with Dr John Francis
by Joey King
This world is full of fake heroes and resumes. Too many people over-promise and under-deliver. It is refreshing to find someone who breaks that mold. Dr. John Francis certainly is a mold-breaker. I first read about him in the summer of 2008. What did he do that is so out of the ordinary?
Dr Francis spent 22 years without riding in any motorized vehicle whatsoever. On top of that, he spent 17 of those years without speaking. Why did he do it? He saw the results of an oil spill near San Francisco in the 1970’s. Francis wanted to make a statement about America’s use of oil. A movie is being developed about his life.
You can imagine the normal questions he’s been asked about his 22 year odyssey. I won’t go into the “usual” questions for this article. Those can be answered by reading his book “Planetwalker” or by checking out his website at www.planetwalker.org. You will be amazed, I promise. Dr Francis was kind enough to grant me an interview in the summer of 2008.
The first thing I wanted to know was why he, an African-American, chose to play the banjo. I come from a long line of Tennessee banjo players stretching back at least 100 years. I know that the banjo has African origins. Was he trying to get in touch with his African roots?
There was some of that he said. It started at the annual Mummer’s Day parade in Philadelphia. The parade dates back to at least the days when Philly was the nation’s capital under the Washington Administration. Dr. Francis saw the locals, both black and white, playing the banjo and fell in love with the instrument. Later, he heard the folk/bluegrass song “Little Maggie,” and he was hooked. He acquired a banjo and quickly learned the “Camp Town Races.” Mostly, he learned from others and developed his own way of playing that closely resembles the clawhammer style. He carried his banjo with him everywhere he went for 22 years and said it opened lots of doors. The banjo turned out to be a great “conversation starter” even if you’ve taken a vow of silence.
Next, I had a “big” question. Since the dawn of human kind, our primary mode of transportation has been walking. On his daily walks, Dr Francis probably consumed 2500 calories and was able to walk 20 miles. Now that is efficiency! A bicycle can probably triple that ratio. Further, those calories can be consumed from a variety of sources (plant animal etc). The motorized transportation developed so far seems to be at odds with both those fundamental components. First, motorized transportation has not been nearly as efficient as walking (20 miles from 2500 calories) and second, motorized transportation practically mandates a single, commoditized fuel source. Can these fundamental problems be overcome?
A big question deserves a big answer. He said bikes are, of course, a great way to increase efficiency, but it goes beyond that. We need to change the collective mindset. People are a part of nature and it is critical that we return to that mode of thinking. It is equally important to respect people and nature. He believes that human rights and environmentalism go hand-in-hand. In fact, there is really no separation between the two. If we stopped military production, those destructive technologies could be used to produce more environmentally efficient technology. There is a technological solution(s) out there “somewhere;” we just have to stop fighting each other long enough to find it. Not exactly a yes or no answer, but it’s accurate.
As one reads his book or listens to past radio interviews on his website, much of his work has a “Zen-like” quality. I asked Dr Francis if he was a Buddhist. He said he was not really anything because those labels tend to separate rather than unite us. He did agree with many Buddhist teachings he said. That is an answer I can agree with…even the Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist.
Doctor Francis made it clear that he was aware that he was not living a “petroleum-free” life during those 22 years. His food was shipped in from far away for example. He was just trying to set an example, and he did so in my view. In his book, he says that the only person we can ethically change is ourselves. When we change ourselves, we change the world.