ONE FRIDAY MORNING in February, a group of students at the University of California at Berkeley settled onto the blue upholstery of a north campus lecture hall and readied themselves for a guest speaker. The students — undergraduates in a class called Introduction to Culture and Natural Resource Management in the U.S. — had been told that John Francis PhD’91was a man of unusual commitment to the environmental cause; he had gone for twentytwo years without riding in a motorized vehicle, and seventeen years without speaking. They prepared themselves for someone noble and ascetic — someone who would exhort them to be uncomfortable — and more than one of them felt slightly irritated at the prospect. But Francis was not exactly what they had expected. For one thing, he was playing a banjo.
The banjo is a happy instrument by nature, but in Francis’s hands it became positively exuberant. He danced a little as he played, shutting his eyes, swaying, smiling, and tapping out a rhythm on the banjo’s silver body. Some of the students clapped along. When the song was over, Francis held out his arms. “Thank you for being here,” he said. “And I say, ‘Thank you for being here’ because after seventeen years of not speaking, those were the first words out of my mouth.”
Francis’s journey began in 1971 when two oil tankers collided beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, spilling 840,000 gallons of crude into San Francisco Bay.
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