Weekend Wanderlust: Trolls bolster already robust Aullwood experience

A monthly guide to day trips around Ohio and beyond

Kevin J. Elliott
One of Thomas Dambo's trolls

Somewhere on social media, you’ve seen the larger-than-life creations of Danish recycling artist Thomas Dambo. His towering trolls have been built to exist within far-flung Bavarian hinterlands, Copenhagen harbors and South Korean botanical gardens. Anytime you spot one, the images evoke wonder and wanderlust, the sudden urge to leave the house and renew the passport. 

But, slowly, Dambo’s installations have started appearing in North America, and in November, a trio of his trolls, along with an enormous troll nest, were revealed at Aullwood Audubon Nature Center and Farm, a short drive north of downtown Dayton. 

While it might seem a bit odd Dambo would choose Dayton as a suitable environment for his whimsical imagination, Aullwood has always been at the forefront of sustainability and a thought-leader in conservation. These concepts are at the heart of Dambo’s mission, which above all is to “remove the word trash from the world,” because, according to Dambo, “nothing is trash.” The symbiosis between the Aullwood grounds, the working farm, the forest of maples and the artist’s family of trolls is thriving, even on a cold, muddy “fool’s spring” afternoon. 

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

The history of Aullwood began with Marie S. Aull, who in 1957 opened Aullwood as the first nature center in the Midwest. Known as the godmother of environmentalism in the Miami Valley, Aull soon bought the adjacent farm, made it fully sustainable and started to develop rigorous educational opportunities for local schools. Indeed, the last time I visited Aullwood was for a fourth-grade field trip. Helping students encounter the outdoors and combat what Aullwood Development and Marketing Manager Laurie Cothran referred to as “nature deficit disorder” has always been paramount at the center. 

“Kids don’t get outside. They don’t walk amongst the trees, feel the grass in between their toes, or understand birds,” Cothran said. “But it’s more than that. It’s about having a connection with the animals, and that’s something they learn through the farm and the nature center.” 

Cothran presented a laundry list of amazing work done at Aullwood, including a Head Start program on the farm, courses on pollinators, unparalleled birdwatching and also being the largest distributor of native plants in the state of Ohio. And now, Dambo’s highly sought, tourist-magnet, trolls. 

But, like most national non-profit Audubon centers, Aullwood was hit hard by the pandemic, and being that it was ineligible for public funding, the effects were acute. All of its programming was canceled, and the nature center was shuttered for 16 months. Drastic measures were needed to recover the significant losses. The Friends of Aullwood, led by Executive Director Alexis R. Faust, reached out to Dambo in hopes they could entice him to make Aullwood the next destination for his trolls. The odds were daunting though, as Dambo is known to be booked four years in advance. 

He happened to have an opening in autumn of 2020, though, and gave Aullwood the signal to anticipate his arrival. He sent a list of tasks and specific training guidelines for the Aullwood staff. They were asked to collect logs, branches, recycled pallet material, discarded plastic and propane tanks — all of which were used in final construction. All of Dambo’s trolls are made with materials from the environment in which they live. He came to Aullwood when he was ready to build, surveyed the property for a month, roaming every nook and cranny to map out his story and vision, and the entire project was up in weeks. 

One of Thomas Dambo's trolls

The three trolls — Bo, Bodil, and Bibbi — stand about 12 to (in the case of the stunning Bibbi) 30 feet high and tell the story of “The Troll That Hatched an Egg.” It’s an interactive climate parable that incorporates Dayton’s aviation history, addresses pollution and recycling, and is tethered to the center’s focus on native birding. Following along makes the hike through Aullwood not only a respite from urbanity, but a scavenger hunt, as well. 

Bibbi, the largest of Dambo’s Dayton trolls, is the most noticeable — bursting from a meadow, trying to lift off on recycled wings. Walk further, though, and Dambo’s intentionality is to keep his trolls hidden. Nordic myth posits trolls as guardians of the Earth, beings that teach us how to protect and preserve it. When you come upon Bo, he’s positioned so you have to meander around a series of trees to see him in full, meditating on the banks of Wiles Creek. 

As far as Dambo and the Cothran are concerned, the trolls will live there permanently. Or as better illustrated by Dambo, until “the inside dies.” He sees them as “living” things in need of charge.  Aullwood has, more than willingly, become the forever caretakers of the trolls, ordering copious supplies of linseed oil to preserve them from the elements. The enthusiasm has paid off. According to Cothran, the numbers have been “staggering,” and admission is up 1,000 percent. People from around the world — many loyal followers of Dambo’s trolls — have traveled to Ohio to see his most recent display. 

“This is such a rebirth for us,” Cothran said. “We wanted so much to give back something compelling, interesting [and] fun for the community to enjoy. And to get people to go outside. That’s always the goal.” 

There and Back

The entirety of the Aullwood troll hike is almost a full three miles, give or take. With added time to explore the farm animals, the nature center and the maple syrup sugarbush (where you’ll find Bodil), you’re bound to get hungry. In this part of Dayton, you’re within a mile of two establishments responsible for the great Dayton Pizza Wars of the 1960s. There’s a Cassano’s Pizza King and a Marion’s Piazza right over the picturesque Englewood Dam bridge. To try Ron’s and Joe’s, you’ll have to drive further. While TAT in Columbus has long been regarded as the “first” pizzeria in the state, Cassano’s has long been heralded as the precursor to Donato’s. 

So, by that measure, Dayton-style pizza is practically indistinguishable from Columbus-style — ultra-thin, corn meal-dusted bottom, square-cut — though it has some slight variation. I’ve long found that Cassano’s and Marion’s, which both operate using commissary ingredients, have their own distinctive yet consistent flavors, and overload the toppings. A Dayton-style pizza should have significant heft compared to something from Terita’s. Marion’s also employs a polarizing crumbled sausage that I’ve yet to find anywhere else. Either place is a great diversion and a slice of pizza history. But, if I had to choose for you, I’d recommend you visit Marion’s and order a sausage and sauerkraut (another unique topping) pie well-done, put a few songs on the jukebox, grab a pitcher of Busch and soak in the north Dayton atmosphere I can only describe as “Saturday afternoon, post-softball tournament with Uncle Randy.” 

For more information on the Aullwood Audubon Nature Center and Farm and how to see Thomas Dambo’s troll exhibit, visit aullwood.audubon.org.