Joe the Guardian, Sneaky Socks Alexa, and the Other Trolls Are Waiting to Be Discovered at The Morton Arboretum

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Troll Hunt concluded on January 31, 2021, and the trolls are no longer at the arboretum. But the arboretum remains an excellent place to see nature, and its next major exhibition, Human+Nature, will debut in 2021. 

When my eight-year-old son and I arrived at the bucolic Morton Arboretum (4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle, IL 60532, 630/968-0074) on Monday, we were greeted by a scene of destruction. One troll had already been at work in one of the arboretum’s parking lots. A crowd milled around the remains of a crushed yellow sedan (perhaps the occupants had forgotten to pay their admission fee) as the angry troll stood poised, rock above his head, to rain destruction on the selfie-taking humans below.

But all was good. Rocky Bardur (this troll’s name) was entirely harmless. He is just one of six fantastic and whimsical creations designed and built by artist-in-residence Danish artist Thomas Dambo and hidden across the arboretum’s 1,700 acres. (A seventh “troll hideout” can be found if you solve a quiz.) “I wanted to tell a story where the trolls are representing nature and the struggle between mankind and nature and the problems that we have with that,” explained Dambo in a Chicago Tribune article. “Mankind is kind of dependent on nature but we are also nature’s biggest enemy in some way because we are slowly just deleting all nature and just filling it in with concrete and digging holes and putting all our trash in there and then we build new residential areas on top of that….I wanted to tell a story about this.”

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Let’s take a short break from the important talk of protecting the environment and cover some key facts and observations about the exhibit:

  • Troll Hunt is a fun interactive art exhibition that opened on June 22, 2018. It’s expected to remain open until early 2021—or until the trolls became unsafe due to deterioration caused by the elements.
  • The trolls were crafted from reclaimed wood and other materials, are 15- to 20-feet-tall (one reclining troll is 50-feet long), and were inspired by the trolls of European folklore. The trolls share the arboretum’s desire to care for trees and protect the environment. They can also be a little cranky at times. Some might even want to capture a human or two with a net or trap, so be on guard.
  • Certain parts of the trolls, including faces, hands, and feet, were transported 4,267 miles from the artist’s Copenhagen studio to The Morton Arboretum. The rest of the trolls were built on site by Dambo, arboretum staff, and volunteers over a two-month span.
  • All trolls are located between two feet and three-quarters of a mile from the nearest parking lot.
  • Should you choose to hike, the Troll Hunt route is 6 to 7 miles.
  • The Troll Hunt is fun for people of all ages. I thought I was just “troll hunting” for my son, but I quickly became fascinated with the challenge of finding the trolls and, once discovered, marveling at the creativity, ingenuity, and whimsy that went into their creation, as well as their massive size. As an adult, there’s nothing like feeling a bit of sudden child-like joy and excitement when you discover something unique and beautiful.
  • I love that the trolls were hidden throughout the 1,700 acres of the arboretum. This gives people the chance to see the beautiful forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other natural areas of the arboretum. While some of the trolls are within feet of a parking area, others require a short hike on somewhat-challenging terrain. I’m glad that the arboretum is trying to get people out of their cars and comfort zones and back into nature.

IMG_2642I could give you a troll-by-troll rundown, but I’d rather let you experience the joy of discovery at this offbeat and inspiring outdoor art exhibition on your own. Here are some tips to keep in mind before and during your visit:

Make sure to pick up the Troll Hunter’s Handbook as you enter the arboretum. The handbook will help you find a clue for each troll to locate the Troll’s secret hideout.

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Arrive early to beat the crowds. The arboretum opens daily at 7:00 a.m. and closes at sunset. We arrived at 10:30 a.m., and the troll sites were already packed. By the end of the day, the troll sites were jammed with families—somewhat reducing the joy of the experience.

Be sure to visit Joe the Guardian—the troll who, spear in hand, protects the edge of the arboretum along the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway. Joe is a stunning 25-foot troll and worth the half-mile hike from a parking area. My son and I were lucky enough to be the only ones at the “Joe” site when we arrived. It was wonderful to be alone as we spent time with this amazing troll. We both agreed that seeing “Joe” on our own was the best moment of the day.

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Wear sunscreen—you’ll be exposed to the sun often during your troll-hunt.

Use bug spray—some of the forested areas were swarming with mosquitos. Be aware of ticks, too.

Bring lots of water if you visit on a hot day.

Wear hiking boots or other durable shoes. Low-lying areas were muddy.

Be careful when climbing the trolls. It’s easy to slip while climbing, and the recycled materials can sometimes be abrasive and/or sharp.

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Use this cheat sheet, If you don’t want to actually hunt for the trolls.

Keep your wits about you. Do not become enamored by the gold left in one of the troll traps, or you might just become troll lunch.

Don’t forget to visit the rest of the arboretum. This is an amazing place that I’ll cover in detail in a future blog. Noteworthy features include a 4-acre Children’s Garden, 1-acre Maze Garden, Sterling Morton Library, Plant Clinic, and more than 222,000 plants from around the world. Click here for information on facility hours, the admission fee, educational programs, and visiting tips, as well as maps.

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So, back to troll artist Thomas Dambo’s efforts to alert us to the damage we’re causing to the environment. We live in a time:

  • where indisputable scientific facts about global warming and the effects of pollution on the environment and the quality of human life are being questioned on a daily basis (often by politicians whose only experience with science was dissecting a frog in a high school biology class);
  • where environmental regulations that help protect our air, water, and soil are being eliminated with what seems like almost joy by the current administration; and
  • where recycling and other simple steps we can take to protect the environment are pooh-poohed as liberal balderdash—rather than viewed as proven activities that help improve our lives.

I hope someday that we will return to a time where people from different political parties can agree on the hard facts of science and work together to address some of the world’s largest environmental issues (global climate change, pollution, deforestation, etc.) before it’s too late. We need to move beyond our short-term interests and think about the big picture—how our actions are irrevocably changing this beautiful world we live in.

Perhaps the Troll Hunt will just be fun for you and your kids, but I hope that amidst the fun, you take to heart the larger lessons it seeks to impart—the importance of protecting, conserving, and appreciating the environment—and apply these lessons in your daily life. It’s up to us to build the world that we want.

Copyright Andrew Morkes [text (except quoted material)/photos]

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Interested in a career that protects the environment? I frequently write about job opportunities in environmental science, environmental activism, and clean energy in my career newsletter, the CAM Report. Of course, it also offers information on hot careers, the latest on internships and salaries, and interviews with workers–from our nation’s planetary protection officer, to entertainment engineers, to crossword puzzle creators. Click here to read a sample issue and learn more about subscribing.

My College Spotlight newsletter often covers interesting environmental majors. It also provides information on admissions trends, scholarships, and much more.  Click here to read a sample issue and learn more about subscribing.

Finally, my book, They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Editionprovides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. Click on the title to read the table of contents, the introduction, and a sample chapter.

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14 thoughts on “Joe the Guardian, Sneaky Socks Alexa, and the Other Trolls Are Waiting to Be Discovered at The Morton Arboretum

      1. It is nice to get out to see the art too, even if it is creepy. The ‘Cat Walk’ in downtown Los Gatos seems rather silly, but my niece enjoys finding the small cat sculptures in the street trees downtown. They are nothing fancy, and most are rather weird, but they are certainly an asset to the town.

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      2. I checked out the Cat Walk art online; they are definitely strange, but if they are fun for kids (or adults), why not. I’m hoping the Morton Arboretum will find a way to preserve the trolls for more than a year or two–or do something again like this in a few years.

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