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.
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
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.
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
For more on the entire display click here.
See also these web pages for more on for more on
and Kent Ullberg.
All photos by J. Lienhard.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H.