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We ignore wild until it lunges

We live in a remarkable place. We have interesting museums and theaters, good hospitals and schools, modern buildings to keep us warm in winter and cool in summer. We're civilized. At the same time, we can sail into Tampa Bay, dive into dark water and become food for a prehistoric creature whose only purpose is to reproduce and to eat. I can't stop thinking about it, and feeling somehow thrilled by it:

There are still big animals around that will devour us.

Don't they know we're human beings? That we're capable of almost anything? That we love our children? That we know how to build a baseball dome? That we can split the atom? That we're the highest animal on the food chain?

A big shark, sweeping relentlessly through the deep, belly empty, knows only to satisfy hunger. A shark is a shark. It senses splashing and recognizes splashing to be a creature in trouble. Sharks prey on the weak. Sharks are incapable of pity. Ahead, its eyes pick out something pale, moving too erratically in the murk, vulnerable. Food.

Shark veers. Jaws open and close. On a man's leg.

Rick LePrevost, attacked in Tampa Bay last week, was playing with his children. He was clinging to a rope behind a sailboat a mile from shore when a 9-foot shark came for him.

Most shark attacks on humans, experts say, are cases of mistaken identity. A small shark, chasing small fish in the surf, bites once, discovers the error and swims away. But every so often a big, hungry shark comes along where a human happens to be in the water. The shark bites again and again. Its intentions are clear.

LePrevost was bitten a number of times before escaping from the water. A paramedic by profession, he knew how to care for his wounds. Even so, he needed two hours of surgery, and his doctor said he probably will be scarred for life.

I don't envy LePrevost what must have been a stark moment of terror, both for himself and his children, followed by excruciating pain. I do envy him a sliver of the experience, though. Very few of us get to encounter nature, or life, at its most primal level. And he did.

Most of us live dull, safe lives. We wake, eat supermarket food, leave air-conditioned houses, climb into air-conditioned vehicles, drive to air-conditioned offices, where we sit all day in front of computers or telephones or spreadsheets. At 5 p.m. we drive home, eat supermarket food, watch television, go to bed. It's a life, I guess, but it also seems to be a slow death.

Some of us try to squeeze a little more juice out of modern life's lemon. We run to get hearts pumping or ride bicycles or lift weights. Some people jump out of airplanes with parachutes or canoe down white-water rivers. Some try to connect with the natural world by watching birds. Some hike into the woods, where they hope to see a bear or a rattlesnake.

Some fish. Some hunt. Some sail.

Some swim where water is deep and dark and wild.

Modern Florida has all but lost the wild. In less than a single century we have managed to tame, and in some cases, destroy, natural systems that had survived thousands of years.

The Everglades, reeling from development and pollution, is on its death bed. Ospreys, hanging on, nest on the tops of towering phosphate company machinery in Central Florida. Black bears are mowed down crossing our highways. We've got Mother Nature on the run.

Our seas, too, are polluted. Yet they still contain sharks, and sharks symbolize wilderness. Wilderness comes right to the sea walls of Florida's most urban county, and things beyond human control can happen in the wilderness. You can be eaten. There is something wonderful and terrifying about that.

On Monday, after noon, I drove to The Pier in downtown St. Petersburg. I parked and walked to the northeast corner and stood next to the miniature golf course. I stared out at the bay, in the direction where the shark attack took place, and watched the boats.

I wanted to see a fin.

Whatever was out there stayed deep.

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