Liam – July 10, 2018

My wife Kim’s brother, his wife and their three-month-old son, William, visited us last week from Michigan. Kim and I had been dying to meet our nephew but we didn’t want to inflict more chaos on them until they were ready. I think that ready for them meant getting out of the house and feeling a little human again, which is why they made the drive to us and not the other way around.

I sensed that Alex and Sarah were eager for some relaxed adult time, so I suggested that I take William off their hands for a while. “Why don’t you three go out, have fun, take a load off. I’ll look after William,” I told them.

“What are you going to do with an infant, Liam?” Kim asked me with great skepticism.

“We’ll hunt for trolls.” All three looked at me like I was nuts. So, I explained it to them.

Since June 22, the Morton Arboretum has been under watch by six Scandinavian trolls known as the guardians of the forest. These trolls are not little creatures living under bridges or in basements throwing vitriol on social media, nor are they adorable little creatures with Don King’s hair meant to bring you good luck. These trolls are huge, towering over us from anywhere between 15 and 20 feet tall. These troldfolk are driven by their desire to care for the trees and are suspicious of humans. Although we’re a lot smaller than they are, our carbon footprint is massive and it has not left a positive opinion of us in the trolls’ minds. Which is why, if you’re driving along I-88, you’ll see one troll standing on a hill, spear in hand, on lookout across the suburbs and into the city with as much skepticism as Kim had when I said I’d mind the infant for a few hours.

My wife, her brother and sister-in-law agreed to let William and me have our adventure hunting for trolls while they did less exciting things like eat tacos and drink beers in Wicker Park. An hour’s drive later, with our Troll Hunter’s Handbook in hand, bottles of water and milk in the travel cooler, William’s sunshade up and baby-sized Wayfairs on, we were all set to traverse the 1,700 acres in search of these eco-friendly beasts.

Though I feel I shouldn’t really have to disclose this, these are not living trolls. They’re sculptures created by Danish artist Thomas Dambo for the Arboretum’s exhibit Troll Hunt, on display through next summer. Dambo hails from Odense, Denmark, though now lives in Copenhagen. His projects—in his words—are made from “trash,” or, more accurately, recycled materials that he pulls from dumpsters, in many cases. And it’s not just massive wooden trolls he makes. He constructs furniture and other interior design projects, all by upcycling. Because you know how the saying goes: “One man’s trash is another man’s dining room set.” Dambo, like his trolls, cares greatly about the beauty and life nature provides, which is exactly what inspired him to build these six friends of the forest.

All were constructed at the Arboretum for spectators to watch using reclaimed wood provided by Sterling Lumber or salvaged from various Arboretum construction projects. Dambo used branches and pine cones to create hair and other details. These trolls are built of the very things they’re there to protect. And that might be exactly the point Dambo and the Arboretum is making—we are all af jorden, of the earth.

I wanted to hunt for these trolls because I can’t turn down an opportunity to witness for myself something so unique, rich in folklore and Danish. Taking my new baby nephew was a great excuse to go. Kids love trolls, right?

What I didn’t take into account is that William, being only three months old, can’t comprehend, well, much of anything and certainly not green Danish artistry. And, it turns out, a stroller ride along the Arboretum’s wood-chipped paths knocks my nephew out cold. But who am I kidding? This hunt was always more about my sense of adventure.

A baby in his stroller sits under a trap made of tree limbs with a giant wooden troll in the background.

As part of the Morton Arboretum’s troll hunt, “Sneaky Socks Alexa” waits to trap people who are not being good stewards of the earth’s trees. Residents of The Danish Home will visit the exhibit on July 19.

The first troll we found was Sneaky Socks Alexa, who isn’t as tall as she is long because of how she is lying on her belly, hiding in the bushes and waiting to pull the line on her people trap—a trap William almost was caught in. Next we came across Rocky Bardur, a strong and destructive troll who had just smashed in a Ford Focus by dropping a 9,000-pound boulder on it for not sticking to the road and risking harm to the trees. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Rocky, apparently, had allowed the occupants to exit the vehicle before flattening it.

Then we headed toward what I thought was down the path to the East Side Trail, which I deemed to be the best route for us. But I am so remarkably directionally challenged that, even with two maps and my compass, I got us turned around. Burning time like that was my undoing.

It was Chicago-summer hot the afternoon we went, and what I also didn’t take into account was that infants have a low threshold for heat. Even though I fed him his slightly chilled bottle of milk, William was struggling to remain, well, cool. Or maybe he was just tired. I don’t know; I don’t speak infant. Point is, I realized that if we were going to find the other four trolls hidden in this grand land of lush greenery, we needed to pick up the pace. But objects on the map are closer than they are in reality.

A massive wooden troll holds a boulder over a yellow convertible.

“Rocky Bardur” dropped a 9,000-pound boulder on a car for not sticking to the road and risking harm to the trees.

That was proven when we finally saw the troll we were hunting, the one on lookout (see main photo at the top of this post). Determined as I was to get up close and personal with the thing, William’s polite but stern fussing convinced me that we had seen enough. So we headed back to the car.

There are still three—or three-and-a-half—trolls lurking among the trees in the Morton Arboretum I’ve yet to find. As part of a very busy month, The Danish Home of Chicago is taking residents to the Arboretum on July 19 for a group hunt. I kind of want to tag along. The woodwork on these things is incredible and though they are made of “trash,” they are full of fresh personalities, and I want to meet them all.

So, I’ll be back. Whether I join the folks from The Danish Home or not, I can promise you that I won’t bring an infant. William’s a cute kid and all, but he’s a terrible troll hunter.