Digging Deeper with Taproot: Meet Contributor Hannah Welling

In anticipation of the launch of Issue 23::TRADE later this month, we got in touch with some of the issue's contributors. We wanted to give you a behind the scenes look at how their pieces in TRADE came to be and dig a little deeper into the stories behind these inspiring makers, doers, and dreamers.

For the second interview in the series we talked to Hannah Welling whose piece "Mushrooms for All: North Spore Talks Business" you'll find in the HEAD section of TRADE. Thanks to Hannah for taking the time to share these stories with us! 

From photography to fiber to farming, you embody much of what Taproot is all about! Could you tell us a little more about what has inspired the path you’ve chosen?

Oh thank you! As it is with most people, my path has not necessarily been a straight one, but all of my experiences along the way have contributed to the place I am in. I knew in high school that I wanted to be a photographer, and so went on to college to study studio photography, but after four years, I realized I really didn’t like being cooped up in the studio. I loved interacting with people, and traveling. It was on a trip to Cuba my senior year that I discovered my real passion in the field. After graduation, I went to New York City and interviewed for an internship at Time magazine, which is what I thought I wanted. However, after spending the majority of my three days there on a subway, I emailed the magazine and basically told them that I could not see myself living in the city. I felt suffocated. So, I moved back to Maine and assisted, then later shot alongside, a local photographer who had a background in photojournalism. She taught me a lot about photoshop and digital photography, which was only just appearing on the scene the year I graduated. We parted ways when I married my husband and had our first child, and I began shooting a lot of editorial work for publications like Down East magazine and the New York Times.

Through it all, though I loved shooting stories around my native Maine, I had a very hard time getting behind the work. I felt like I was advertising a false image of the State; an exclusive view afforded only to the wealthiest of its residents and tourists. I grew up in a much more rural area of Maine, with no TV, and always with a large vegetable garden. My brother and I ran wild for most of the time…building hideouts, riding our bikes, running barefoot through the woods, etc.  So, that way of life continued to call to me.

When I was pregnant with our second child, I became quite ill, and that illness carried on for about three years. It turned out to be chronic lyme disease, which took years, and 13 doctors, to get diagnosed. During periods of that time, I had to spend a lot of time on the couch. It drove me crazy to not be accomplishing things, and I found that knitting filled some of that longing. I could feel a sense of satisfaction with completion of a project, but not have to spend a lot of energy. I also had to stop working as a photographer because there were days that I couldn’t even get out of bed.

With the diagnosis and help of a naturopath, I slowly began to recover, and as I did, things more or less fell into place. My parents purchased 40 acres in New Gloucester, and we bought the house that was on the property. I felt an undeniable urge to give our children the same experiences I had growing up, with the addition of a farm. Fiber was such a comfort to me when I was sick, and so fiber animals seemed like a perfect fit, though I knew nothing about raising them at the time. Simultaneously, photography was gradually finding a place in my life again, and I was finding joy in photographing things that really meant something to me. It has not been an easy path, but I feel strongly that it is the right one. This lifestyle allows me to homeschool our children, create a loving, healthy and creative home, and also contribute to our family’s needs all while feeling like I am promoting a meaningful way of life. 

What first sparked your interest in writing about North Spore Mushroom company?

Well, let’s see. This may sound a little backward, but it was actually their physical beauty. There is something very mysterious and magical about mushrooms; and they have been portrayed as such throughout history, in storybooks and illustrations. There is a thread of magic in everything that has to do with the natural world, and I strive to have that come through in my photographs. I am fascinated with form and nature’s perfect design. My mother is an artist, and I always marveled at her ability to create art from her imagination. I could only draw or photograph what was right in front of me. I struggled with that for a long time, and only now can I embrace it. I love to go close up, to smell and taste, and manipulate light to recreate what it would feel like for the viewer to actually experience that object or place with all of their senses. Amanda and I had discussed the idea of a piece on mushrooms for a little while, and North Spore seemed like a perfect place to start. Mycology can be an overwhelming topic to people, as it was to me, when you approach it from a foraging perspective. But, growing your own one species at a time? That seems a little more welcoming to the beginner. Northspore has done an amazing job at making basic mushroom education accessible to the general public.

Could you tell us a little more about your experience visiting their warehouse?

I have so much admiration and respect for them. The space is wonderful, and they were nothing but welcoming to me, and both my children, who were along for the experience. The warehouse fits in perfectly with their whole image…slightly hipster, but completely accessible. Truly, a photographer’s dream; gorgeous light, clean spaces.  And you won’t meet three nicer guys!

You have gorgeous photographs from that visit and others.  How did you first become interested in photography?  And what sort of other explorations has it led you to?

Thank you! I became interested in high school, but that was when everything was still strictly analog. I started out by taking a course or two at MECA, and pretty much made up my mind after that. I have always been artistic, but again, drawn to replicate what was right in front of me, rather than from my imagination. I find deep pleasure at being able to recreate the feeling of something I am seeing. I can’t always convey to the audience exactly what I am seeing and feeling with all my senses, but that’s the goal each time I photograph. What does it smell like? And what would that smell look like? What would it feel like to touch it? For a while I became quite disenchanted with the direction in which photography was headed; technology and post production weighted more heavily than the original capture. I really loved the slowness of it, and the equipment. Looking through the lens of a medium format camera is still a completely different experience than through the lens of a digital camera. My favorite camera to shoot with, when I find time, is still a Contax 6x4.5 medium format film camera. 

What other projects do you have in the works right now? Anything we should look out for? 

Oh projects! Yes, lots of those. The current project is getting fiber ready to sell at the Common Ground Fair, which is in September. My fiber is a 60% finn sheep/40% Mohair blend, all from our own naturally raised animals. It’s soft enough to wear next to the skin, and has beautiful luster. I’ve been doing a lot of natural dyeing, and that in itself is so much fun. This is my first year with a booth at the fair, so I’m very excited! Longer term, there are some photography projects I hope to keep chipping away at, including one about the “real” Maine. Having grown up in this beautiful state, I want people to know there is more to Maine than lighthouses and potatoes, but also feel a sense of duty to preserve the inherent culture of passing generations. Recipes, photographs, stories, etc. tied together with history of the land. 

You can find more from Hannah Welling at her blog: www.mindfulfolkfarm.com.