Back in February, I made a short post in my other blog about one Dr. John Francis, who abstained for roughly two decades from speaking or riding in cars, initially as a reaction to an oil spill in San Francisco Bay, later as a way of developing, and I use this word knowing that it will make some people itch but it’s really the best way of describing what actually happened here, mindfulness. It was serendipitous, then, that <A HREF=”http://www.librarything.com/er/list”>LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program wound up giving away copies of his newly revised autobiography: Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence..
I had extremely high expectations, and I have to say that this book lived up to them. I’m not, as a rule, someone who is easily swept away by the inspirational, and I like to think that living in Ithaca as long as I did gave me a nose for self-serving liberal do-gooder rhetoric. But I was inspired by this book, and moved. You can’t accuse Francis of being a trust-fund hippie. He continually acknowledges and reevaluates his own motives and the difficulties that his choices cause for others, avoiding self-righteousness. He describes natural beauty and human goodness without being precious.
The nitty-gritty: the story opens in 1971, a few months before Francis’s decision to abandon the automobile, and ends in 1994 when he comes to the conclusion that he can best help the people he’s met on his journey if he leaves open the possibility of using motorized vehicles on a case-by-case basis. In between, he acquires two degrees and a plethora of surprising jobs, crosses the country, is frozen, dehydrated, and threatened by violent racists, almost buys a mining claim, is eventually tapped to work for the U.S. government and ultimately dedicates his life to helping people save the environment by saving themselves. Much of this happens while he’s using pantomime and occasional note-writing for all his communication needs, and carrying a banjo. Many of the descriptions – of the community’s noble yet often futile response to the oil spill that drove the author’s big change, of walking through the nukeiferous wastelands of the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, of meeting with monks who are repairing a roof and listening to the Rolling Stones – stick in the mind; the descriptions of the oil-slicked birds made me cry a little, but I’m like that.
The pacing of the book is very interesting. The portions drawn directly from his journals are dated, and you soon realize that time is flowing in that uneven fashion characteristic of summer vacations, years off from college, and the other periods – all-to-fleeting in most people’s lives – when we’re not chasing anything. This despite the fact that Francis does have a goal in mind on each of his expeditions; that goal is just not as important, narratively speaking, as the getting there. At first disconcerting, this quirk quickly becomes enjoyable. There’s also very little follow-up from episode to episode – the feel is almost picaresque, although without the satirical edge that the word connotes. Ultimately, I found that this made for a very relaxing read, the textual equivalent, more or less, of the mood I was in when this picture was taken:
This is a good feeling, which I recommend
So, to sum up: recommended book, thoroughly enjoyable without being nice, and I would hope that, given the tenor of the times, it will be wildly successful.