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Trolling the woods of Maine, where Scandinavian folklore comes alive

Thomas Morton (left) stood with Natalie Pelletier while Alice Pelletier photographed them with Birk, one of five trolls created by artist Thomas Dambo, in the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine.
Thomas Morton (left) stood with Natalie Pelletier while Alice Pelletier photographed them with Birk, one of five trolls created by artist Thomas Dambo, in the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

These trolls don’t lurk beneath bridges, waiting to snatch anyone who passes overhead. And they aren’t hiding in the darkest nooks of the Internet to bait people into outrage.

These trolls, including one that stands nearly three stories tall, aren’t dastardly by any means. They come in peace, settling in midcoast Maine to share an urgent message with those who discover them tucked away in the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay: Please appreciate and take care of the planet, before it’s too late.

“These are nature’s protectors,” said Gretchen Ostherr, president and chief executive of the gardens, the largest botanical garden in New England.

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Later this month, visitors to the 323-acre property may discover a series of five giant, whimsical troll sculptures, each immersed in nature and made from reclaimed and recycled wood and other natural materials.

The exhibit, called “Guardians of the Seeds,” is the work of Copenhagen-based artist Thomas Dambo, and was put together by a team of people, including community volunteers, during the past seven weeks. The imaginative artwork leans on old Scandinavian folklore and fairy tales to transport visitors to a magical world while conveying the importance of forest preservation, conservation, and our responsibility to the environment around us.

Lilja, one of five trolls created by artist Thomas Dambo.
Lilja, one of five trolls created by artist Thomas Dambo.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“I really want it to stir two things,” Ostherr said. “That people have a wonderful, connected, restorative experience, and that they are inspired to take care of their planet” and become stewards of the woods.

The Maine display officially opens May 29. Although its offerings are similar to dozens of other eye-popping troll sculptures that Dambo has built across the world and part of a shared narrative, the storyline of the Boothbay trolls is unique.

In the United States, Dambo’s trolls have drawn crowds in Illinois, Florida, and Kentucky, with much fanfare. But the arrival of the mythical creatures to the woods of Maine marks a first for New England.

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Officials from the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens first reached out to Dambo in 2019 as they discussed ways to have more visitors “share the magic of the gardens,” Ostherr said.

“We loved the story of the trolls, and Thomas’s focus on the trolls being about biodiversity and taking care of the planet and the forest,” she said. “It perfectly aligns with our mission, which is about connecting people with plants and nature.”

Adelaide Trafton played with troll Gro in the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.
Adelaide Trafton played with troll Gro in the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Each troll has its own Danish name — Roskva, Birk, Gro, Lilja, Søren — and represents a different part of a tree. The tallest of the group is about 28 feet high.

“Some of these sculptures are the size of a house, or a garage,” Dambo said. “So it’s a lot of wood.”

Dambo, 41, said he built the faces and feet in his workshop (a.k.a. “troll factory”) in Denmark before they were transported to Maine. But the bulk of the sculptures were constructed on site using several tons of recycled materials, their positions and designs inspired by the precise spot in the woods they call home.

One troll has its large wooden arm wrapped around a towering tree, while another sits on a rock jutting from the mossy earth, crossing its legs as if meditating.

“That’s one of the special things in my art, it doesn’t sit on a pedestal inside of a museum,” said Dambo, who uses discarded tree roots and fallen branches to create details like beards and hair. “It’s immersed into the surroundings where it is. They are alive, and intact with the natural world.”

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The exhibit, called “Guardians of the Seeds,” is the work of Copenhagen-based artist Thomas Dambo, and was put together by a team of people.
The exhibit, called “Guardians of the Seeds,” is the work of Copenhagen-based artist Thomas Dambo, and was put together by a team of people. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

He wants people to feel that they’re part of the trolls’ world, stumbling upon them in awe and left feeling as if they rose magically from the earth.

Dambo, who first started making massive trolls from salvaged materials in 2014, has even turned the outdoor display into a sort of treasure hunt. Finding all five trolls along the paths (a map of their locations is provided) and solving a series of clues leads people to a “hidden, magical place,” where the supernatural creatures have stored 10 “golden seeds.”

“It looks like a sacred place where trolls worship,” he said, “and their religion is nature.”

Dambo wrote a backstory for the exhibit that details why the collection of creatures, who have “lived in the forest for thousands of years,” have suddenly emerged to interact with “little people,” or humans, and stashed away the special seeds.

“They were hidden by five giant forest trolls, protecting each part of the forest so old. It was told that the trolls spoke the tongue of the trees, and had sworn to protect them from war and disease,” the rhyming fairy tale goes. “Birk had roots. Roskva was wide as the trunks. Gro was like the leaves, breathing life with her lungs. Søren, like branches, would wave in the wind, and Lilja, like the flowers, each year would spring.”

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“Some of these sculptures are the size of a house, or a garage,” artist Thomas Dambo said. “So it’s a lot of wood.”
“Some of these sculptures are the size of a house, or a garage,” artist Thomas Dambo said. “So it’s a lot of wood.”Erin Clark/Globe Staff

It’s the first international project Dambo has done since the coronavirus all but shut down the art world last year. He said he hopes the sculptures will bring people out of their homes to appreciate the great outdoors while also educating them about society’s wasteful habits.

“My art is about trying to convey the message of the importance of taking care of our natural world, and being better at recycling,” he said. “I try to use the trolls as a medium for being the voice of nature, and how nature perceives us.”

Ostherr said the timing of the exhibit, as more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine and seek a return to normal this summer, feels serendipitous. A silver lining in the pandemic was that people reconnected with nature and felt its restorative powers, she said.

“I just feel so lucky that we have this incredible experience for people to come back to,” Ostherr said.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.