Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2484
GHOSTS IN OMAHA

by John H. Lienhard

Today, ghosts in Omaha. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

There's nothing quite like accidently encountering something we've imagined all our lives. That's how I first saw Stonehenge. We were driving across southern England on the way from a home in Jugoslavia to a new home near Exeter. Suddenly, there it was, under the gray winter sky -- unannounced, unexpected and far more exciting than anything we could've planned.

Now another version of that story, last month in Omaha, Nebraska, but this time, a half hour passes before we realize what we're seeing. We've noticed a fountain filled with bronze geese and go to look more closely. We find sculptures of 35 Canada Geese rising out of a pool -- 25 percent larger than life, with the fountain mimicking the splash of their wings on water.

Geese taking off

Geese flying through a wall As I circle with my camera I keep seeing more geese. Some have crossed the street and seemingly flown through the glass walls of the First National Bank. Several fly through the inside of the bank atrium. Across the street from the bank, we find more geese passing through the stone fašade of a building.

These are clearly ghost birds. Never mind the bronze and occasional flashes of stainless steel. Only after we conceive them as immaterial do we grasp their flight pattern. So we turn and walk back the other direction, wondering why this flock has taken flight. Sure enough, we find a group of stray buffalo behind them, careening diagonally through the downtown city -- through buildings, wild-eyed and panic stricken. They aren't chasing geese; they're running for their lives.

Buffalo running through a wall

We keep walking against the flow of bronze creatures. As we leave a last straggling buffalo, we meet the terrifying predator. It is a small band of pioneers with one open wagon and one covered. On the rise beside them a grizzled hunter and his dog return with a deer. A group of women and girls half walk, half trot, to catch up with the rear wagon. One pulls along a girl who holds a bouquet of wildflowers. She's obviously been dawdling. A mother shouts a warning at her son who's carelessly perched up on a wagon. The father walks along, taciturn and concerned. After all, this is no game. Finally, a lone outrider brings up the rear.

Covered wagon

Last pioneer And we realize that we've walked some six blocks to take it all in -- this extended story, so wonderfully lifelike. We can almost hear the tinkling of pots strung from one wagon. These are ghosts, animal and human, of our expansion into the Great Plains 160 years ago. But they're ghosts we can reach out and touch.

Three great sculptors created all this: Blair Buswell, Edward Fraughton, and Kent Ullberg. Omaha was a gateway to the nineteenth century west. Lewis and Clark came through here. The Mormons paused here for two years on their journey to Salt Lake. So many ghosts linger here and, for a moment, a flicker of their lives has become visible. A fragment of the past has blinked into view without warning, in the cold bright sunlight of this late winter day.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For more on the entire display click here. See also these web pages for more on for more on Blair Buswell, Edward Fraughton, and Kent Ullberg. All photos by J. Lienhard.

Atrium geese

Buffalo with calf

Boy on wagon

Hurrying women

Two bronze geese


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.