Nancy Forrester is resigned to the fact that she didn’t become an artist of world renown. “I am in good company,” she says, shrugging off any insinuation that not becoming famous is synonymous with failure.
At age 76 Forrester is right not to be concerned. An artist can impact the world in a variety of ways and it’s not always about paint on a canvas. Instead, Nancy Forrester has made a profound difference to Key West and beyond as a site-specific artist and an environmentalist. This is in large part thanks to the rainforest garden she created behind her house on Elizabeth Street and to a discussion about endangered birds that she has perpetuated for decades, one conversation at a time.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, the acre-sized plot of land Forrester acquired in 1969 might. Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden has been a destination on Elizabeth Street for intrepid tourists, nature lovers and ornithologists for over 30 years. At its peak, the tangle of tropical trees was, to put it in her terms, “a big green blooming biomass.”
“It was so thick that I could not see a person standing just a few feet in front of me. I wanted to create a space that would let people know what it was like to experience a true tropical rainforest.”
Forrester lights up at the memory of her garden, yet it’s hard to imagine.
From the outside, north-facing 518 Elizabeth Street is a rather gloomy and ominous presence although the inside of the house is entirely different; it is cluttered and warm, like an eccentric artist’s tree house. There is art and objects everywhere, as well as cages for the birds, all of which sleep inside at night.
Now that the “biomass” is gone, Forrester is eager to share her story. Birds squawk and cry out from different parts of the house but she seems oblivious to them. Mr. Peaches, a friendly Muluccan Cockatoo, sits on her arm.
“The parrots weren’t my idea,” she tells me. “People started dropping them over the fence from the start. Others gave them to me when they no longer wanted them.
“It’s funny,” she muses. “Once upon a time I had a large garden and I didn’t speak about the birds. Now I have a small garden and speak only about these large beautiful animals.”
Forrester is both saddened and disgusted about the fate of her project. Like many environmentalists she can barely comprehend those who are not alarmed at the way we are destroying our planet, building on every square inch, digging up the trees, polluting, disturbing the eco-systems.
But, she concedes, it is hard to fight for a contrary cause in the face of modern pressures. Property taxes grew out of hand, her income as an artist was never sufficient, a not-for-profit organization bombed, she grew older, the tourist set became younger and the pressures to sell mounted.
So she did. In order to continue living in her home, care for the birds and maintain a small educational sanctuary she let go of her garden and has watched as it has been dug up. Now, she relies on visitor donations, educational programs and other forms of fundraising to help feed and maintain the exotic creatures still in her care.
Forrester’s downsized garden is open to the public every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Self guided tours take place throughout the day (there are comprehensive descriptions placed next to each bird cage and the garden is very well organized) but between 10 and 11 a.m. Forrester holds court with Mr. Peaches at her side. She shares the good news and the bad news about these intelligent birds and their habitat.
It’s close to 11 a.m. and it’s been a chilly morning, but a side gate bell rings and Forrester quickly but politely excuses herself to greet the curious tourists that have found their way to her house.
Before going, however, she wants to make something clear.
“Even though my name has become synonymous with the parrots, I want to be clear about my priorities, because they are often re-arranged.”
“What are they?” I ask. I am happy to give her the last word.
“Art third, birds second … Earth first!