Once upon a time, in the first days of the sun, an acorn fell to the ground and split, giving birth to two enormous forest trolls, and "two became many, many became a million."
So begins Thomas Dambo's poem.
"They lived in harmony with both birds and bees," the story continues. "There was peace and they never ever hurt the trees. They took care of them all – no soul too tiny: cedar, birch, ash, elm, oak and pine tree."
Then came "a strange looking alien race." The trolls greeted them, "taught them the balance of beings and plants," Dambo tells.
"But at some point in time – no one really knows when – it was like the small aliens forgot it again."
Now six of the old creatures take refuge at the Morton Arboretum, the fantastical green haven in the concrete suburbs of Chicago.
Joe the Guardian is seen wielding a spear, standing colossal atop a knoll near a crabapple-lined lake, gazing to an uncertain horizon. Power lines stretch endlessly with corporate buildings. In arranging selfies with fellow aliens here, we have to shout to be heard over the tollway rush.
Then closer to the arboretum's gate, around the sycamores, is Rocky Bardur. He is in midroar, hoisting a boulder overhead, threatening to add another victim to the smashed Ford Focus at his feet.
"That's very much a reference to Thomas' look at our car culture," says Sarah Sargent, the museum's manager of interpretation and exhibits.
The troll hunt handbook recounts the trolls taking up residence here last spring, prompting an investigation. "The trolls share the Arboretum's desire to care for trees," the pamphlet reports, "however, they seem suspicious of humans."
Hence the caution signs around the lush, fragrant preserve. "TROLLS AHEAD."
They were posted with these larger-than-life sculptures of recycled wood, which have captured imaginations far beyond Illinois.
Since Dambo introduced his "Forgotten Giants" to his home Denmark in 2012, their ranks have rapidly spread, with Isak Heartstone arriving to Colorado last year. Heartstone's presence in Breckenridge sparked controversy – his alien neighbors revolted over the traffic and ruckus that followed him. But earlier this summer, he found a happy home nearby amid taller pines.
And his brothers and sisters in Chicago continue to receive similar attention. No one place in America has more of Dambo's trolls, and strangers have come from near and far to find them. The trolls have indeed boosted the arboretum's annual visitation, adding an estimated hundreds of thousands to the 1 million mark recently achieved.
Perhaps most importantly, Sargent says, people are now trekking farther afield. They've taken up a quest. They can drive and make short walks to every troll, but many embark 6-plus miles on foot. And at each stop, they collect clues directing them to a mysterious seventh destination.
Dambo "wanted the trolls to be out in the forest and for people to have to hunt for them, which was a big goal for us as well," Sargent says. "We really wanted people to go out and explore all of our 1,700 acres."
So they're getting a true taste of the vast and varied nature thriving here. The Morton Arboretum has collected 4,600 plants from 52 countries, all of them growing in captivating shapes and shades – growing in harmony, just as the late Mr. Joy Morton would have it.
His is the name on the salt cans. But behind his company fortune was a deep love for trees, a childhood passion nurtured by his father, Julius Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day. Joy Morton in 1922 established and endowed the arboretum, where today a simple message from his father is bold on the visitor center walls: "Plant trees."
That's part of the conservation mission here. The museum heralds itself "The Champion of Trees." And for a while now, the duty has led in-house scientists on a mission to understand the greater impacts of man-made climate change.
Their major concern, says arboretum spokeswoman Alicia LaVire: "Preventing tree extinction."
Images this summer of a burning Amazon intensified fears. The scene came in the wake of May's United Nations report warning of "unprecedented" danger to nearly 1 million life forms, including plants.
The Morton Arboretum has joined agencies in sounding the alarm on a biodiversity crisis. And at the core of that crisis is the beating heart of habitats everywhere: trees.
Our own survival is rooted in trees, the museum reminds. Trees give us oxygen. Trees protect us, filtering pollutants and sucking up floodwaters. Trees soothe; studies reveal the sight of them alone lowers blood pressure. With more trees, neighborhoods are safer, other studies show.
All of this is told here in hopes that people leave with a new appreciation. The ultimate message: "People need trees, and trees need people," LaVire says.
Yes, if the trolls could talk, that's what they'd say. To find Furry Emma, one walks through a towering, stream-fed forest that feels ancient, home to a symphony of birds and bugs.
Then it clears to reveal Emma, and she does not look pleased; she has strung a net on the branch of a maple tree, as if to trap you.
The lumpy Niels Bragger also looks angry, snarling with one hand gripping an oak, the other clutching his club.
Sneaky Socks Alexa might not be so brave to face her visitors, hiding as she is in the thick shrubbery, though she too has a trap set.
Last we find Little Arturs in a meadow spotted by birch trees. He's on his back, looking bored or maybe defeated, face to the sky, as if dreaming for a better tomorrow.
Here we find our final clue. It leads us to a thin path through conifers, where we reach the mysterious seventh destination under a great canopy.
It's the trolls' secret lair, complete with a teepee made of branches; with an iron drum that calls the family home; with more weapons and troll-sized utensils, including spoons for whatever might be stewing in the human-sized kettle over the fire ring.
This is also where Dambo's origin story is kept, inscribed on a metal sheet. And for all the pain and anger the alien invasion has caused this mighty tribe, there's forgiveness, the story goes.
"If you love the forest," it reads, "the trolls will protect you."