Saturday, August 07, 2004 7:24:00 PM
by Niki Collins-Queen
|Woman Finds sanctuary in wilderness - The Macon Telegraph and News Article about Niki Collins-Queen''s 100-mile Everglades canoe trip
Woman finds sanctuary in the wilderness
Thursday, July 12, 1990
You could tell Niki Collins she was nuts and she'd probably smile a disarmingly bright smile and agree. A three-day, solitary trip into the North Georgia mountains changed her life. "I was totally one with the woods, water and trees," said Collins, 40. That experience in the early 1980s convinced the avid outdoors person, who is a human services provider with the Macon Mental Health Clinic's Child and Family Therapy Unit, that she was going in the right direction.
She connected with nature in a way few of us can, and she's been strengthening that connection ever since. A 99-mile canoe trip through the Florida Everglades last Christmas served as an exclamation point in her quest for the spirituality she seeks. "That's my church," she said of the outdoors. "That's where I feel closest to Spirit or God."
You might have a hard time taking Collins seriously, except for the sincerity she exudes when talking about her relationship with the outdoors. For most of us, going into the woods may be pleasant enough.
'We can all appreciate a spectacular sunset, but it is so much more for someone of Collins' mind set.
And even for those who do share her belief—which she said is not Pantheism, meaning "nature is God," but rather panentheism, meaning "God is in nature and nature is in God"—most are reluctant to discuss it in the frank and open terms that Collins will.
"Nature is not God. God is in nature," she said. "There is a difference between saying you're God and God is in you. I see it as God is everywhere and everything and not just in people.
"I can go to church and it's a sacred place, but I don't feel God like I do in nature. I am willing to talk about it (because) I feel one of the problems with traditional religion is it talks of saving souls, but it doesn't talk about saving the planet. If we continue to abuse the planet, we'll not survive."
In a conservative area such as Middle Georgia, anything that circles very far away from conventional religion is viewed as a dangerous thing to discuss. There's too much fear or resentment over nature worship (witness the letters to the editor in this newspaper expressing concern over Earth Day) for many people to be open in their beliefs.
"She's the sort of person a hardshell Baptist would shake their head and walk away from," said long-time friend John Houser Jr. "I'm aware I'm sticking my neck out, but I'm used to it," Collins said. "I want to let people know there is something powerful in nature; something healing. Whether people feel strongly for or against it, at least they're thinking. I'm not looking for people to agree with me. I'm looking to share my experiences."
CoIlins' interests run to authors such as Matthew Fox, a controversial Catholic priest who espouses the sanctity of nature; Joseph Campbell, a cultural anthropologist best known for his series of books on the power of myths; and Shirley MacLaine, regarded as the high priestess of the New Age.
Collins related the story of being stopped by a woman after she'd checked out one of MacLaine's books from a local library.
"She told me, 'Don't read that I book, it's evil,' " Collins said. "When people encounter something that's different it's threatening to them. I know I'm an oddball and that's OK. I'll disarm people by agreeing with them (that I'm odd). I know most people do not feel like I feel."
Said Houser: "She is very open and totally honest. There is no guile or mincing words in her. She has the ability to get along with people, so bad situations don't materialize. There's a lack of malice in her. People sense that and it disarms them."
One thing that may be overlooked in Collins' convictions about her Church of the Great Outdoors is her skill as an outdoorsperson.
She negotiated her trip through the Everglades in the dead of winter with a companion she'd never met before. Along the way she fought cold, bad weather and a fear of the unknown. "That Everglades trip, it was calling me. God was leading me," Collins said. "It was an enormous undertaking. I can look back and say I was crazy. (But) I was called. Spirit had called. I entered the trip kicking and screaming. (But) I felt it was meant to be."
Collins covered about 10 miles a day through the Everglades in her canoe. She said the first part of the trip fell into place so well it helped prepare her for the more difficult stretch in the second part of the trip.
"I tend to be very technical and map-oriented," said Houser, who's accompanied Collins on outdoor trips. "She tends to get out and do it and it comes out all right."
"It's very much like getting to know a loved one," Collins said of the outdoors. "The more time you spend with them, the more your love deepens. To me, being in the outdoors is different now. I'm so close to the elements."
She's currently on a solo canoe trip on the Suwannee River, which will take a week to 10days. She said she feels she must isolate herself from human companions to draw herself closer to nature. "I feel all of my experiences up to now have prepared me for this," she said. "I see myself as a student of the Earth.
"I always fear this (quest) is an illusion or delusion. Is this really leading to a higher power, or are you being foolhardy? It just feels right."
The photos are of Collins and her tent on a camping platform in the Everglades.