The Herald Gazette Barnesville-Lamar, Georgia 30204
November 7, 2000
By Sherri Ellington
Looking around the back yard, with its profusion of green growing things, it is evident Niki Collins-Queen feels at home with nature. If the trees, shrubs and flowers aren't convincing, there is always the family of deer grazing peacefully just a few feet away from her patio table.
Two women occupy the table. Every now and then, the deer raise their heads and flick their ears toward them as if to say, "Are you talking about me?"
In the background, the noise of 1-75 traffic as it passes under the Johnstonville Road overpass is muted and easily ignored, drowned out by thick trees and a rippling creek nearby.
Nature, not just the deer, is the subject of the interview; nature and how a child counselor turned a love for outdoor adventure into an ever-widening series of spiritual quests.
The whole story can be found in Collins-Queen's first book, "Earth, The Forgotten Temple: A Spirit Quest in the Wilderness."
She recently donated a copy to the Barnesville-Lamar County Library; it is also on sale at the Gordon College bookstore.
Collins-Queen's spiritual journey is enhanced with rich descriptive detail of the places in which she traveled—mountains, rivers, swamps and oceans—and people met along the way. It is peppered with informative tidbits about the animals and plants seen in the places she visited.
The journey begins in South Africa, where she was raised by her maternal grandmother. Her mother, divorced from Collins-Queen's American father soon after their daughter's birth in New Orleans, La., was studing medicine in Johannesburg.
For the first seven years of her life, Collins-Queen was bounced from grandmother to aunt to an orphanage to grandmother again before her mother finished her medical studies.
"It was her dream to be a doctor," she said. "It became my dream to help children like me, who were nurtured by nature rather than their parents. The frogs and ferns and flowers became my family. I got my sustenance from nature."
Her grandmother's home was near the ocean, and as a result of growing up with the surf and sand she loves the water to this day.
Her spirit quests outlined in Earth, the Forgotten Temple all center around water.
At age 21, Collins-Queen came to America to meet her father and never returned to South Africa. She met her first husband, a tax lawyer, in New York.
Though they met in the big city, both were nature lovers.
When his work brought him to Mercer University in Macon, she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology, then followed it up with a master's in community mental health. Soon after she became a licensed counselor for the state, the couple divorced.
"Meanwhile, I'd discovered the great outdoors of the Southeast and was getting my therapy from nature," she said.
She arranged a backpacking trip into the Cohutta Wilderness, but her friend backed out at the last minute. Despite a disastrous earlier attempt at solo camping, she decided to go alone.
"I was frightened but decided to have a try, anyway," she said.
A spiritual experience in the North Georgia mountains was the last thing she expected.
Her grandmother and mother were atheists. Nevertheless, they sent her to a Catholic school where nuns terrified her with tales of an angry, vengeful God who cast disobedient schoolgirls into hell. Negative religious experiences left her an agnostic.
For that reason, she still does not understand what caused her to say what she said when she sat down next to the Conesauga River.
"I said, 'God, if you exist, let me know you.' I don't even know why I said it," she said.
The result was a spiritual experience unlike any she had ever had before. She felt bathed with love in the form of a dazzling light that permeated her body and all of her surroundings. She saw nature with new eyes.
"I realized God isn't this Big Daddy in the sky, but a loving entity that's in every thing, the whole of creation," she said.
Years later she discovered what happened to her on the mountain has a name. In Native American tradition it is called a vision quest, and is part of a religion that teaches all life is sacred and all things are interconnected exactly the revelation Collins-Queen received on the mountain.
"I found nature to be more and more compelling. It became my church, my temple. I just kept needing a bigger temple," she said with a smile.
For a two-week canoe trip down the Suwanee River she adapted the traditional vision quest into what she calls a spirit quest. She fasted, prayed and had another spiritual epiphany.
"It was amazing," she said. "I talked to God again about my problems and got incredible answers to my questions. Something changed inside of me. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life."
For an even bigger temple, Collins-Queen decided to canoe the Florida Everglades. Again, a friend canceled at the last minute, but this time—one takes no chances with the Everglades—she found someone else to go.
"It's very easy to get lost and neither of us knew how to navigate," she said. "That spirit quest was very demanding. We had some pretty hairy moments."
It was the year it snowed in Florida, so they dealt with unusual weather on top of giant salt-water mosquitoes, alligators and sharks. There are porpoises and manatees in the Everglades, too, and raccoons that like to bite holes in fresh water containers.
"Most people don't know about the porpoises," she said. "They swam with the boat."
The trip itself, another powerful experience led to the desire for an even bigger temple.
Collins-Queen settled on the Caribbean Sea, especially after changes at work threatened her sense of self.
"After 13 years at work (as a child counselor for the state) they offered me the acting director's position," she said. "Eight months later they offered it to me
permanently. I struggled with that; it was a lot more demanding. I needed some more wilderness time."
After a lot of soul-searching, Collins-Queen quit her job and put an ad in Cruising World magazine asking for offshore sailing experiences.
"Because I didn't have a lot of experience working a boat, I didn't expect a lot of calls," she said. "I got 70. Unfortunately, most of them were looking for a romance."
After weeding out the lonely hearts, she chose a partner for the first leg of her trip not on experience, but because "I liked his boat." They parted ways at the first island and Collins-Queen began "hitchhiking" her way across the Caribbean on a succession of boats. She turned down several offers to sail around the world and returned to Georgia.
Along the way she sea-kayaked and camped her way across the Exuma Island chain, a 100-mile string, of small islands, befriended a community of sailing families and had a brief romance with a blues-singing boat captain.
Six months after returning to the States, Collins-Queen went back to work part time.
"I was time rich so I decided to write the book," she said. "I needed to share my experiences but I didn't have any writing background. My first draft was terrible."
She sought out writing friends and made a few along the way during the five years it took to bring Earth: the Forgotten Temple to the bookshelves.
"When you put your heart and soul into something, Earth angels appear to help you on your way," she said. "I became a writer through that experience."
The book has a happy ending, outlining her growing friendship with a fellow wilderness club canoe enthusiast, a man who "couldn't be more opposite from me, and totally different from anyone I've ever dated," she said.
Yes, she married him.
Not only that, her career is moving in a new direction. Collins-Queen gives talks in Middle Georgia about Ecopsychology, in which she became interested two years ago. She hopes to give one at Gordon College.
This relatively new branch of study adds nature into the psychological equation. It allows her to meld her two loves, helping children and drawing on the healing power of nature.
'It's the study of humankind and earth, our bond with nature," she said. "We've studied our relationships with others but not within the context of our environment. We'd never do that with a different species."
In addition to talks, she is planning a second book on Ecopsychology.
It will include anecdotes about the spiritual and healing power of nature.