WESTBROOK — In the three weeks since a 300-foot-wide disk of ice started spinning on the river in downtown Westbrook, it seems the entire world paid attention.

Tens of thousands of people stopped by the banks of the Presumpscot River for a glimpse. Scientists set up a webcam so they could study it. Poets wrote about it. Schoolteachers arranged field trips so students could see it. Mixologists concocted drinks in its honor, and talk show hosts debated its mystical meaning. It has made headlines in Washington, London and Tokyo.

We can’t stop talking about it.

The Westbrook ice disk accomplished something our leaders have pledged but few have delivered: It brought people together.

Utterly strange and beautiful and perfect, like a full moon hovering over a mill town in the dead of winter, the ice disk offered a momentary shared experience during a time of turmoil in America, when many people are distracted from meaningful personal interactions because they are lost in the infinite expanse of their digital devices.

The ice disk gave us a reason to focus for a few moments, hours and days on something that didn’t need resolution and asked for nothing more than our imagination.

Three weeks after it formed overnight on Jan. 14, the ice disk had stopped spinning but crowds still came to Westbrook’s River Walk for a glimpse of what remained and a chance to share a moment of wonder, surprise and mystery at a time when we need more of all in our lives. The timing of the ice disk’s formation felt like a gift, said Amy Wood, a Portland psychologist whose specialty involves helping people clear clutter from their lives.

In many ways, the disk did exactly that for the community at large. It offered something unusual and wondrous that unified people, she said.

“So many of us are so connected to technology and isolated from each other. We don’t have the essential human experience of being with people face-to-face and participating with something positive in our own community,” she said. “That is central to our psychological health. Increasingly, people are not getting that, because they are isolated on their phones and on their screens.”

WELCOME POSITIVE EXPERIENCE

The spinning disk had a meditative quality, and people quickly fell under its trance. By focusing on the disk, people perhaps felt more grounded and connected to their immediate world, “their community and their orbit,” Wood said. “It’s a positive thing. It makes people happy. It makes people curious.”

Especially these days, positive common experiences are essential “because people tend to be depleted internally,” she said. “If you look at what is going on in our country, everything is so polarized, the news is so negative and addicting, and that’s what people tend to talk about. That lowers the morale in our communities. People are focused on all the negativity and drama and they are feeling all that negativity and drama and they are not connected to their own community. The ice disk has given people that positive external experience.”

Since the disk suddenly appeared in the river, it attracted the attention of the international media, the world of science and everyday people with a rooting interest and civic pride. Thanks to a livecam, those who cared could monitor its health on a daily basis, as if checking in on the condition of a loved one lying in a hospital bed – or a rare hawk, out of its element and hobbled by frostbite.

Michael Shaughnessy, head of the Friends of the Presumpscot River, walks on his land in Westbrook. He said: “People would say, ‘It’s ice on the river. What’s so unique about ice?’ That’s like saying about the Grand Canyon, ‘What’s so unique about erosion?’ ”

Everything about it was positive, until a self-proclaimed performance artist from New Jersey thought he could improve it by carving a peace sign in it. He failed, and drew widespread condemnation from the community in the process. “That was not an artistic act, that was an act of arrogance,” said fellow artist and Westbrook resident Michael Shaughnessy, who also is president of the Friends of the Presumpscot River.

Said downtown business owner Mary Brooking: “The lasting lesson is that nature is awesome and beautiful and should be left to do its own thing, without interference from people who want to embellish it or improve on it or do something else that generally ruins it. It was a wrong-headed idea to improve upon something that was perfect.”

The ice disk survived the guerrilla art attack, weaker but still intact, noted Shaughnessy, ascribing its survival to the greater power of nature. “I have this great belief in the river and the kind of wonder that can occur out on the river, and in other places, too,” he said. “People would say, ‘It’s ice on the river. What’s so unique about ice?’ That’s like saying about the Grand Canyon, ‘What’s so unique about erosion?’ There hasn’t been anything like this of this scale.”

QUICKLY, IT BECAME A THING

Will Plumley was among the very first people to notice the ice disk. He showed up for work at his office in Westbrook at about 8:30 on Jan. 14, and the perfect circle of ice slowly spinning in the Presumpscot River below caught his attention. Later, he looked at satellite images of the river from the days before. There was no ice disk on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, he said. That Monday, there it was.

Will Plumley works at the digital marketing agency Vont last week in Westbrook. He was among the first people to notice the ice disk, which he could see from the window of his office overlooking the river. “It wasn’t long before crowds started to gather,” he said.

Plumley had seen ice disks before – in this river, just downstream – but nothing like this. This one was 300 feet across and spinning counterclockwise as it tangoed with the current of the river and the water spilling over Saccarappa Falls. At first it was a curiosity. Plumley and his co-workers at the digital marketing agency Vont went up to the roof deck of their Ash Street office building and admired the beauty of the ice, mesmerized by its hypnotic rhythm. It reminded them a little of the Earth, spinning perfectly in place.

They took some photos for social media and set up a time-lapse video. By lunchtime, “the Westbrook ice disk” had become a thing. “It wasn’t long before crowds started to gather,” Plumley said.

Brooking operates the downtown arts center Continuum for Creativity and had just completed morning classes when she began scrolling through social media that morning. Her Facebook feed was alive with news of the ice disk, which had formed right outside her office that overlooks the river. “So I ran outside to see,” Brooking said.

The disk has been a boon for local restaurants and other businesses, but more important than the commerce it generated is the awareness it brought to both the river and to downtown, she said. The ice disk gave Westbrook a blast of civic pride.

Westbrook artist Martha Schnee wears one of the ice disk shirts she created and which quickly sold out. She donated profits to an organization dedicated to Wabanaki culture.

“It just exploded in the community, suddenly,” Brooking said. “Westbrook became a destination. People were walking and driving and parking and out on the River Walk just looking. It was heartwarming to see Westbrook being noticed in such a good and positive way. Every day we would see it in the local papers, then the regional papers, then it was on the national news and then the international news. It was a heady experience, and it was right in our backyard, in our river.”

FOR BUSINESSES, ‘A HUGE BUMP’

Daily Grind coffee shop co-owner Joe Salisbury said the disk remains a daily topic of conversation. Everybody talks about its condition, curious if the weather or people with misguided motivations had destroyed it. “It’s been a great few weeks,” he said. “Everything has been so negative, all the press and all the news about the government shutdown and what Trump is doing and who is being arrested. But for (a few) weeks, people came to see this chunk of ice. It’s just a chunk of ice, but it’s more than ice. People were actually down there talking to each other. It was really nice to see.”

At Legends Rest Taproom, where the ice disk is visible through the restaurant windows, the most popular mixed drink these days is the Ice Disk Cosmo, which is simply a cosmopolitan served on the rocks with a lime sliced in the shape of the ice disk placed on top. Bartenders could barely keep up that first weekend, when people lined up to get in. “It took us by surprise,” co-owner Tom Minervino said. “The first weeks of January, when everybody has their New Year’s resolutions, is not the best for a beer and burger bar. The ice disk gave us a huge bump, and it wasn’t just people falling off their resolutions.”

Portland photographer Justin Levesque has a theory about ice and its ability to bring people together. He’s been to the Arctic and has explored ice as a theme in his art for a few years. He is showing work related to his experiences in a group exhibition called “Melt Down” at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, opening in March. He’s not surprised the ice disk drew international attention to Westbrook. “That’s what ice does, because ice is inherently mysterious,” he said. “In a fundamental way, we’ve always been curious about ice and the world we can peer into through it, and the way it has always defied our expectations of nature and how we fit into it,” Levesque said.

‘EXPERIENCING JOY’

Another artist, Martha Schnee, made ice disk T-shirts and sweatshirts a few days after it appeared. She sketched the disk from above, giving it a wispy, cloudy essence, and included the words, “I saw the Ice Disk.” Schnee, who lives in Westbrook, sold out her first run of 25 within the first week, donating her profits to Nibezun, an organization dedicated to Wabanaki culture. She’s making two designs for her second run, including one that says, “Someone I know saw the Ice Disk.”

She visited the disk a half-dozen times. “I actually even cross-country skied over during the blizzard,” she wrote in an email. “It’s such a fascinating phenomenon, both visually and culturally. At first I was interested in seeing it, and then quickly became interested in seeing people see it. There were just a few people the first time I went, mostly local folks. The next few times I went, there was much more of a buzz. When I went on the weekend, it was bustling with people of every kind and age. I ended up actually meeting a lot of people around the disk and having some great conversations. I love marveling about something completely natural and strange with a total stranger. The whole thing was so comical, amusing and whole: experiencing joy alongside others as we gazed together, shivering, at a slowly rotating massive piece of ice.”

She explains the cultural phenomena associated with the ice disk as a combination of the internet and international media coverage, sparked by the unusual nature of the event and compelling aerial photos. It was, she said, simply beautiful. It helped that it formed in the most accessible part of the river, right downtown with easy access points all around.

‘REALLY DID BRING US TOGETHER’

Abigail Cioffi, executive director of Discover Downtown Westbrook, said no amount of promotion could top what the ice disk did to prompt strangers to discover downtown Westbrook. The first Saturday after the disk appeared was the busiest she has ever seen the River Walk.

There’s talk, she said, of starting a winter festival to honor the ice disk and the camaraderie it inspired, and to celebrate the river’s role in the community in bringing people together.

Peter Burke lives on the Presumpscot, downstream less than a mile from the ice disk. He discovered an ice disk in the river near his home in 2013. That one was about 15 feet in diameter, and equally beautiful and equally majestic. He appreciates the power of the river in all seasons, and says the lesson of the ice disk is one of humility.

“It’s a reminder of the flow of life and a reminder that we are part of something much bigger,” Burke said. “The ice disk really did bring us together. It was mesmerizing to stand next to complete strangers and take it in for a few short minutes and then get back to our lives. It was just a nice little break for everybody.”

 

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