Theres a WHAT in the Backyard???
Story & photos by Fyllis Hockman
he beautiful parrots were bantering back and forth; giant palms obscured
light from above; large leaf exotic plants obstructed the path. I felt
like a Lilliputian in a land of overlapping green giants, each one poised
to grab me should I dare to slow down a bit to gawk. Yet the diversity
and unfamiliarity of the plants and trees make it hard not to gape.
The only question remained: How did this tropical rainforest end up
in Nancy Forresters backyard in Key West, Florida?
Large green foliage
Billed as Nancy Forresters Secret Garden -
and indeed located as it is at the end of a hidden, narrow dirt lane,
it well deserves its moniker - the story behind its creation is
as intriguing as a stroll among its many trails. It all started some
40 years ago, when painter and photographer - and currently self-described
eco-artist -- Nancy Forresters keen eye saw some promise in the
then-undesignated city dump. Once she and her family moved in, we
just cleared up the debris and started gardening. It evolved into a
rainforest almost by design, as my artist friends and I planted mostly
tropical exotic shade plants at random.
Asserting that the natural world has always been
my teacher and the theme of my art, she credits her love of nature
and a simple basic style of living as inspiration to protect the land
As the last remaining undeveloped wooded acre in the
town, it now houses 100 different species of palms, ferns and orchids
and vast quantities of lush aroids (the afore-mentioned giant foliage),
set amidst 100+-year-old fruit trees. Many are rare and endangered,
and have developed into a select gene pool that can keep a species alive.
And although I dont know what an angiopteroius fern is, I was
impressed when Nancy claimed she has five different varieties and that
hers is the only garden in the country to have them. Not to mention
that her endangered cycads date from the time of the dinosaurs. Thats
good enough for me.
The plants are not the only endangered species around;
so are some of the 22 parrots that call the forest home. Many of them
are being lovingly nursed back to health from a variety of parrot ailments.
The garden doubles as a non-profit humane society, at one time housing
100 birds, although Nancy has since limited her brood to 22: We
have to make sure we can safely evacuate them all in the event of a
hurricane, she explains.
And these are no ordinary birds; they each boast a definitive
personality of their own. Imaginative write-ups list their origin, vocabulary
-- some of which is quite extensive -- their history, favorite treats,
likes and dislikes, foibles and frailties. Well, okay maybe not
so much. But beautiful Ara, for example, sings opera, eats pizza, and
loves shoes and dancing, and happily spreads her wings upon request.
Mr. Peaches, a handsome screaming white cockatoo, is a rescue from New
York City where he frequently rode the subway, likes broccoli, dislikes
pecans and is especially fond of salsa and chips. Choo Choo, formerly
Chatsworth whose favorite meal is breakfast, actually sneezes just for
fun, and Rock, a high-energy Hawk-headed parrot, is the star entertainer
who flirts with everyone, whistles, sings, does a fabulous wicked witch
impersonation, and insists on bathing in his water bowl even on the
coldest days of the year. His Hi Baby, whatcha doin?
is a frequent refrain.
As Nancy entertains visitors with tales of her garden
and animal escapades, her prized blue Brazilian parrot, Baby, often
hangs upside down on her perch, swinging and doing calisthenics. Nancys
devotion to her pets and plants is contagious, and her conviction that
we are morally obligated to save Earths life
forms heartfelt. Here, art is experience, she enthuses.
Come to be inspired. Draw, paint, and write poetry. Sing and dance.
Help celebrate 40 years of green living and sustainable behavior.
The fact that its in the heart of Key West is an added bonus.
Nancy, Baby and friend at a photo shoot
As Amanda Albert of New
Orleans crowed: It makes me so happy to come here. I return
every year. Its so rare to see such wonderful birds - and
to think, you saved them all.
But given the expense of maintaining such a special
world, and the fact that the few visitors who are actually able to find
the garden have diminished recently due to the downturn in travel everywhere,
pleas for donations are in evidence at almost every turn. But the sense
of imposition is offset by their sense of whimsy.
Upon entry, where the admission is $10 per human, one
is greeted by a sign proclaiming: If I am not in the garden to
greet you, it is because I am underfunded, short-staffed and working
to stave off development. Further down a small graded nook: Imagine
this area gone and in its place 9.1 residences each with a parking space
for 2 cars. And intermingled among the parrot lairs: warnings
not to pay attention to the screaming white parrots: No
eye contact; No smiling; Turn your back and walk away -
but essentially, please leave something behind for their care.
Meandering path through the garden
There is much to see in Key West itself, a city where
anything goes, where everyone feels comfortable. It's a city of contradictions.
It's a city that's part New Orleans, part island getaway. A town where
honky tonk sits comfortably with tropical vegetation on the same barstool.
Where man-made tourist attractions thrive beside the intrinsic culture,
history and lifestyle of the island. These are the things that draw
people to Key West.
And Nancy Forresters Secret Garden provides a
private haven of its own, a chance to reflect upon the history that
is still Key West today. Let the serenity transport you to another era
when life was a lot simpler, streets a lot safer, and the pace of living
a lot slower. And you'll also want to return, as so many others have,
year after year. I just hope it continues to survive long enough for
that to be possible. For more information, call 305/294-0015 or visit