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Don't stop enjoying nature, Bobby

To: Bobby Martin Jr., coral snake victim

From: Jeff Klinkenberg, Real Florida writer

Dear Bobby,

I'm so glad you're recovering from that snake bite. What a frightening experience it must have been. You're a very brave boy. I wonder if I'd be as brave. Probably not.

Isn't Florida a strange place? Nature, for the most part, has taken a back seat to civilization. Yet it's possible to be bitten by a poisonous snake. Wow.

I live in Pinellas County and work in St. Petersburg. Both are crowded with people and buildings and lots of traffic. Sometimes I enjoy the hustle and the bustle, but mostly I long to be in the woods or on the water, looking at birds and snakes or maybe catching a bass.

That's what I love about our state, Bobby. Even though we're so civilized, we do have nature, untamed nature, all about us. Some people hate it _ they hate the idea of snakes and alligators and stingrays and mosquitoes _ but I thrive on it. Something tells me you do, too.

Ever visit Boyd Hill Nature Park? It's a nature preserve in St. Petersburg. In the spring when I jog there in the morning, I see lots of wildlife. Guess what? Often I see coral snakes, right out on the path.

I'm not afraid of snakes, Bobby, but I don't like to be surprised by them either. So when I'm running along, and see one inches from my feet I jump for the sky like Michael Jordan after a rebound. I'd pay money to see a video of my reaction. It'd be pretty funny.

Coral snakes, despite what happened to you, are timid animals. I scare them more than they scare me. As I sprint one way, the coral snake goes as fast as it can in the opposite direction.

I feel good about my snake encounter the rest of the day. I don't say, "Gross! A snake!" I say, "Cool!" Know what I mean? Most of the time I sit on a chair in front of a computer surrounded by ringing telephones. I feel a little like a machine, too. But when I think of that snake, and how I ran past it, I feel like a child of nature. I feel a little like a wild animal myself.

Once a week, Bobby, I swim for half a mile or more in the Gulf of Mexico. I'm training for triathlons, a race that features swimming, cycling and running. I'm a slow swimmer, and I almost always end up far behind my faster friends. That's a little scary. I think to myself: "What will happen if I get tired? What if a shark bites me? Nobody would notice."

I have to give myself a good talking to. First of all, I'm a strong swimmer, even if I'm slow, and I'm unlikely to drown. No. 2, the chance of a shark actually biting me is small. Driving to the beach is more dangerous.

So I keep swimming in the gulf even though it worries me that I am sharing the ocean with sharks and stingrays. Swimming makes me feel alive, part of the natural world. I don't want to live my life in fear.

I hope you won't either. I especially hope you don't give up your enjoyment of nature. Go ahead, chase frogs. Pick them up and admire them. Don't be afraid of snakes, but do respect them. Maybe your parents can get you a guide at the library or bookstore that identifies snakes.

Don't be hard on yourself about what happened. You made a mistake picking up a poisonous snake, but you weren't acting dumb. Because you're a smart kid, you're interested in everything. You saw that pretty snake and were curious about it.

Never lose your sense of curiosity, Bobby. If you do, the world will become a very dull place.

Good luck. Hope you're well soon.

Jeff Klinkenberg