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One with Nature

It has been a good spring for coral snakes. I see them on my morning runs in the nature park near my St. Petersburg home. They are highly venomous. As I jogged down the trail recently one slithered across the path. Jumping, I cried out my surprise. The snake coiled briefly in a defensive posture and then fled into the brush. As I rushed by, my heart pounding like an Indian's drum, I felt as if I were flying.

It was the kind of moment I treasure as I resist middle age and a much too civilized existence. For the rest of the day, as I sat at my computer terminal, thinking about running past that snake, I felt a connection to the wild Earth.

Computers, television, air conditioning, motor vehicles, fattening foods and other wonders that encourage sedentary behavior are the enemy of a natural life. A soft couch is comfortable, but it can also be poison to the body and the spirit. Running, walking or riding a bike is the antidote, a way to maintain an exterior and interior wilderness amid overwhelming technology.

"I never feel that I am inspired unless my body is also," Thoreau wrote in his June 21, 1840 journal. "They are fatally mistaken who think, while they strive with their minds, that they may suffer their bodies to stagnate in luxury or sloth. The body is the first proselyte the Soul makes. . . . The whole duty of man may be expressed in one line _ Make to yourself a perfect body."

When I work physically hard _ becoming aware of my body _ I feel most alive, kin to the birds and the bees and whatever else is out there. I may be a slave to technology, wearing pricey shoes or pedaling a 21-gear bicycle, but physically and mentally I am connected to the natural world, to the wild. I am just another animal.

Now that it is warm, the animals are out. It had been seven months since I regularly saw rabbits. Now I see a half a dozen every morning. They eat the grass along the path I use. When they see me, they freeze _ for a moment anyway _ and then rush headlong, and foolishly, into the palmettos. There are Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes back in the silent shadows, and they eat rabbits for a living. A friend, walking in the park one afternoon, saw a rattlesnake swallow a rabbit. Some people have all the luck.

Only once have I seen a diamondback during a walk. In the woods north of Tallahassee, I accompanied a wildlife biologist who studied them. Suddenly, near a tall pine, he held his hand up in caution. Then he whispered and pointed. I failed to see the snake. The biologist hunkered down and pointed again. It was coiled near the base of a palmetto, maybe 6 feet away, tongue flicking, trying to pick our scent out of the air. It never rattled. The nearest McDonald's was 25 miles away. It was a moment of startling beauty and clarity.

On a December morning, I accidentally rode my bike over a pygmy rattlesnake at Myakka River State Park. The reptile, sluggish from the cold, was stretched out on a fire road and trying to collect energy from the sunlight. I rolled over it before I could stop. So did my wife. We returned for a better look. The snake slithered slowly into the tall grass. We wished it a speedy recovery, but we knew we had probably damaged it mortally.

Unpleasant things can happen to people who risk the wild, too. An older friend, an extremely active man, was digging fossils in the middle of the woods when chest pains hit him like a lumberjack's ax. He made it back to civilization, to the hospital, to the heart surgeon. But technology can do only so much. The other day his wife, Frances, smiled and said: "Paul's back digging fossils again. And he's been turkey hunting!"

For a couple years, after I was diagnosed with an obscure lung disorder, I worried obsessively about dying. The temptation was to play it safe, to stay on the couch, to watch happy television shows. Exercising hard while seeking the wild became my physical and mental therapy. As Thoreau wrote in his November 18, 1857 journal: "Sympathy with nature is an evidence of perfect health."

So. Picture this: A bobwhite quail leads her family across my path. A gopher tortoise watches from the opening of his burrow. A pileated woodpecker attacks a slash pine like a living jackhammer. I jump a coral snake and laugh/squeal. It's better to run with the snakes than to die on the couch. I'm not dead yet, thank you.

During a bike ride in my neighborhood park, I once saw a Sherman's fox squirrel, a thrilling rarity. I saw white-tailed deer during a Panhandle ride along a deserted beach. During a Paynes Prairie State Preserve bike ride I saw a flock of turkeys. Some very sassy blue jays _ they must have had a nest close by _ dive-bombed my head during a Miami run. At Lake Kissimmee, I saw scrub jays, a threatened species, as I bicycled through dwarf oaks. In the Everglades, I got to see a snail kite, one of North America's rarest birds, as I pedaled through Shark Valley.

As I jogged through Boyd Hill Nature Park last month, a friendly zebra butterfly kept me company for a quarter of a mile. It must have been my shorts, redder than any passionflower. I was walking with my wife at the same park last week when we were stopped by a 5{-foot alligator lying contentedly in the middle of a trail. It grudgingly crept out of our way after one mighty hiss.

Sometimes, as it happens, I lack the time to drive to the park for a run. But it's possible to find the wild among the civilized if you are tuned in. My friend Mary Jane walks along the sidewalk of a St. Petersburg bayou in the morning and sometimes sees manatees, which have survived on this Earth for more than 30-million years. My neighbor Dave, jogging around our block, shouted to me that he had seen a bald eagle down by the bay. From where I stood on the front porch I could hear wilderness in his voice.

The next morning I jogged through the neighborhood and watched the skies like a bird of prey. I saw no eagle, but I noticed a red-tailed hawk _ an exceptionally large raptor _ perched on a light pole near the grove of oaks at the nursing home. Nursing home residents feed squirrels there. The red tail, I am positive, was stalking a easy meal of squirrels tamed by domesticity. In the wild is the ever-present possibility of death.

Three times I have fallen off my bike. All were surprises, all were frightening _ but exhilarating, too. I always wear a helmet and I seem to bounce. Last time it happened, I flew over the handlebars and landed in a soft fire ant mound. Watching a passing bald eagle, I failed to jump a curb.

In April, while running early one morning on a gravel road, a long way from the nearest human being, I stepped wrong, turned my right ankle and fell hard. For a moment, I was sure I had broken the bone and envisioned a long, painful crawl to civilization. Standing gingerly, I hobbled the mile back to my pickup truck. For a while, even after the ankle was mending, I stuck to flat, safe asphalt.

But to cultivate the wild, inside and out, you have to risk the wild. I'm back on unpaved trails in the woods. This morning I saw a harmless ringneck snake. Tomorrow, if I'm lucky, I might trip over a rattler. Let me die in my footsteps.

Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and spring. If there is no response in you to the awakening of nature _ if the prospect of an early morning walk does not banish sleep, if the warble of the first bluebird does not thrill you _ know that the morning and spring of your life are past. Thus may you feel your pulse.

_ Henry David Thoreau's journal, February 25, 1859.