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A "half tank holiday" to a Fantasy Forest in Battle Creek

a view of chainsaw carved sculptures at the Leila Arboretum
Brian O'Keefe
The Leila Arboretum in Battle Creek is home to a collection of chainsaw carved sculptures. The Fantasy Forest was a response to the threat of Emerald Ash Borer to a grove of trees that dated back to the beginning of the arboretum

In the final installment of this summer's 'half tank holiday' series on road trip destinations in Southwest Michigan, we visit the Leila Arboretum.

In 2002, arborists discovered the emerald ash borer in the United States. In fact, the first place they found the tree-killing pest was just outside Detroit. The invasive beetle is blamed for killing millions of ash trees throughout the Midwest and Canada over the last 21 years. But, as the saying goes, the Leila Arboretum found a way to turn lemons into lemonade.

Brett Myers is the Arboretum’s Executive Director. He’s a self-admitted "tree geek." Myers knew the beetle would quickly take aim at an area near the entrance to the 83-acre tree park. In the 1920s, the arboretum’s original designers created a grove of 44 green and white ash trees.

a man, holding the head of a dragon that was once part of a larger sculpture
Brian O'Keefe
Leila Arboretum Executive Director Brett Myers holds a dragon's head. Once part the Fantasy Forest, it had to be removed after rot and water damage damaged the sculpture

When the emerald ash borer spread to southwest Michigan...the Leila Arboretum didn’t have the budget to protect the trees. As they died one after another, Myers lamented the losses. Then one morning on his drive to work, as he drove by a chainsaw carver’s home, he had an idea.

“I thought, what if we got one tree saved near our fountain and front entrance.”

By "saved," he didn’t mean keep one of the ash trees alive. Rather, what if the dead tree could become something new?

In Myers' vision, “It would be this really cool sculptural thing. As that conversation grew money started to show up, a committee started to form and we chose 16 of the largest of the 44 to save and have carved, still standing on their original root system.”

That was in 2015, when the Leila Arboretum held its first chainsaw carving event.

Since then, there have been other carving events. Each time they added more massive, intricate sculptures to what was once a grove of ash trees. Myers said a group of young visitors helped to give the space its name. He explained how it became The Fantasy Forest.

“One of our youth educators had a tour group of kids here and posed the question, ‘what do you see in the trees?’" The kids came back and said they wanted to see fantasy creature types of that’s what we ended up with.”

Standing on the edge of the Fantasy Forest, Myers pointed out one of his favorite sculptures. It’s a five-headed dragon, but Myers said it’s more than that.

“At the highest point on the tree, it was a five-branched ash tree, he carved a little castle parapet, and on top of that has a wizard who is using his magic to fight off the five-headed dragon. It’s just always been a really cool piece.”

A massive troll is another favorite. With its mouth wide open, Myers said, “you can sit in the troll’s mouth as a seat for a photo.”

The Fantasy Forest does more than make the best of the bad situation an invasive tree-killing bug created. It helps serve the Leila Arboretum’s mission of promoting horticulture and the arts in a natural environment. Myers explained, “I love that mission because it does really capture the spirit of a garden and opens us up to, you know, the plants as being works of art themselves.”

There's a challenge to having a collection of sculptures fashioned from what were already dead and dying trees. Carvers warned that after about 10 years the arboretum would start to see the wood rot and degrade.

"That’s where we are now, nearing that. We’ve had a few that we’ve had to remove so far," Myers said.

That’s why the Leila Arboretum plans to hold another chainsaw-carving event next month. The goal is to add six new sculptures to the collection. Some of the new additions could be placed at other locations at the Arboretum.

Myers said they’re so popular that spreading them around the property is a great way to encourage visitors to explore more than the Fantasy Forest.

Brian comes to WMUK after spending nearly 30 years as News Director of a public radio station in the Chicago area. Brian grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and attended Western Kentucky University where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Broadcasting. He started working in public radio while at WKU; and has worked in radio news for more than 35 years. Brian lives on a quiet lake in Barry County with his wife and three dogs. Thanks to his Kentucky roots, he’s an avid collector of bourbon and other varieties of whiskey. Above all else, Brian considers himself a story teller and looks forward to sharing southwest Michigan stories with WMUK’s listeners.
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