Why a troll hunting tour of Denmark is the education in sustainability you never knew you needed

Why a troll hunting tour of Denmark is the education in sustainability you never knew you needed
Mike MacEacheran strikes out on a recycled sculpture tour of Copenhagen

“You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find a troll, would you?”

Admittedly, it was one of the strangest questions I’ve asked while doing my job in recent years. It had taken me half an hour of going round in circles and asking the odd passerby, but I’d finally hit the travel jackpot – ahead of me through a dark tunnel of trees, partially hidden by scattered oak and shadows, was Little Tilde.

I’d almost come to doubt my senses when I’d started seeking out the forgotten giant in Vallensbæk Mose nature reserve, but there she stood, hauntingly beautiful; made of recycled scrap wood and peering through the forest, as if keeping an eye on the small stretch of lake that rubbed against the woodland. There’s nothing quite so odd as gazing up to meet the oversized eyes of a 15ft troll, let me tell you.

The Six Forgotten GiantsHill Top Trine

Trolls are everywhere in Denemarke these days and I had come to Kopenhagen on a scavenger hunt with a sustainable twist. Denmark is the country of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen and the Little Mermaid, but it is also now home to Den Kæmpestore Troldefolkefest, or The Journey to The Giant Troll Folkfest, an imagination-tugging trail through the country’s out-of-the-way wild places.

It’s the brainchild of recycling-focused artist Thomas Dambo, who creates larger-than-life folkloric creatures from salvaged wood, then hides them in secret locations at his favourite green places in his homeland and around the world. Some lurk in meadows, on riverbanks, or under bridges and, terwyl there is a map to help you along your way, the first two I encounter are wonderfully hidden. Die eerste, tucked behind an urban farm, and now this, lost in a copse of beech forest.

While treasure hunting trash trolls offers a new if strange perspective on parts of Denmark that visitors would normally never see, the concept has a far more meaningful purpose. To help us better connect with nature and – crucially – for us to reconsider the value we put on rubbish. The project’s essence, says Thomas, is that trash can be beautiful.

The following day, I caught up with the artist while he was at his studio, 30 minutes outside Copenhagen in the town of Roskilde. As we chatted, he was in the midst of planning his latest monstrous creation. The as-yet-unnamed Troll number 81.

“We see rubbish as a negative thing, but it can be changed into something wonderful,” said Thomas. “Rubbish is a suffocating substance that’s killing out world, but I’m trying to show that it doesn’t have to. Seeking out these trolls is part of the fun, egter, it’s also about remembering the importance of nature and how you can do more to look after your own backyard.”

Like many artists these days, Thomas is a pioneer of environmental activism. While Covid wiped his calendar clean — seeing projects at the Tokyo Olympics, Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and Burning Man cancelled – he has cemented his reputation over the past two decades with a series of provocative installations. At Smukfest and Roskilde Festival, Denmark’s two largest music festivals, he built an entire nightclub out of the dirty clothes, tents, party hats, chairs and sunglasses festival-goers left behind the previous years.

We see rubbish as a negative thing, but it can be changed into something wonderful

Also on his resume: the Future Forest in Mexico City, an urban woodland with thousands of trees, plants, flowers and animals made from three tonnes of unwanted plastic waste, as well as Happy Walls, interactive pixel structures made of recycled tiles, which visitors can manipulate to create words and pictures. Since first appearing in Copenhagen in 2004, these have now popped-up in Beijing, Edmonton, Die Engele, Rio de Janeiro and Santiago and yet none of the artworks give a sense of the community Thomas has created with his monstrous trolls.

“I always work with volunteers, which helps spread the sustainability message through a trickle-down effect," hy sê. “On site it can take two weeks and up to 1,000 man hours to build one of the larger trolls, so if I can inspire people in each location by helping me, then that’s reward enough.”

The Six Forgotten GiantsTeddy Friendly

The artist’s newest sculpture – a troll carrying a treehouse backpack that children can climb into – recently appeared in a secret location in France, and among his favourites are others in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and a family of seven benevolent trolls outside the town of Boom in Belgium. They also appear hidden in plain sight in green spaces and parklands as far and away as Seoul, Puerto Rico, Chongqing, Miami, Colorado and Kentucky.

For the sustainably-minded tourist to Copenhagen, another terrific troll to seek out is Hilltop Trine, located in Hvidovre, a suburb eight miles from the tourist bustle of Nyhavn. Next to a serene farmhouse, I find her basking in the sun, lying on a ridge with chickens scarpering past her feet and two children sitting in her outstretched hands. I’d never really given much thought to recycled art before, but here I could see it was a sheer delight. In the soft focused light of a summer afternoon, and without any beanstalk or castle in the background, the landscape looked just like a fairy tale brought to life.

The Six Forgotten GiantsOscar Under The Bridge

Can you make a trip out of troll hunting? I think you can. And if you do it as the artist has intended – slowly, mindfully and on two feet – then you never know what else you might find along the way.

Travel essentials

Mike MacEacheran travelled as a guest of Visit Denmark en die Hotel d’Angleterre in Copenhagen. For more about Thomas Dambo, his trolls and volunteer opportunities, visit thomasdambo.com.

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