In September 2011, Amanda Blake Soule sat at the kitchen table in her Maine farmhouse breastfeeding Annabel, the youngest of her five children, while discussing the future of SouleMama.com, the popular blog that had already turned her into an icon of motherhood, sustainable living and handcrafted glory. SouleMama had led to three books, and at points had even funded the farmhouse life itself.

Two of her longtime blog sponsors, Jason Miller and Ted Blood, co-owners of Vermont-based Nova Natural Toys, had reached out to her with a proposal to take the lifestyle and mothering blog out of the internet world it lived in and into something more tangible – a magazine.

“As we were talking about this magazine, we realized we wanted to do a whole life magazine and not stick to these early childhood years,” Soule said. “That there was so much more to what we were doing.”

She had also reached a point where she was less interested in blogging every day. Her oldest children were growing up, and she wanted to protect their privacy; as their lives grew more complicated, it felt less “appropriate for me to share it.” Then there was the issue of her own creativity.

“I don’t know how many times I can make a beeswax leaf crown in the fall and be excited about it,” Soule said, laughing.

Forty-one now, she began blogging in 2005, when she and her husband, Steve, were living in Portland with their two children, Calvin, then 5, and Ezra, 3. She was pregnant with her third child, a daughter she would name Adelaide. Life felt like a blur of small children and knitting projects and hand-sewn clothes. Then too, she was looking for a way to preserve more than food; blogging was a form of documentation. “It was just kind of a way, at the end of the day, to have something tangible that we had done,” she said.

They left the table on that September day with a game plan and the first issue of Taproot magazine came out early in 2012. So she conceived, created and published a magazine in three months?

“Maybe four?” she said. “When I decide to do something it happens fairly quickly.”

She told this story sitting at another table, a big square set in the back half of Milk and Honey café on Cove Street in Portland, the new home of Taproot, a quarterly with the tagline “the magazine for makers, doers & dreamers.” The advertising-free magazine Soule co-launched at an improbable economic moment today has 9,000 subscribers ($42 a year) and sells an average of 36,000 more copies on newsstands. And it’s growing, with plans to add two more issues a year.

The table is mostly empty – among the many methods this South Portland native uses to get things done, quickly, is inviting creativity by removing clutter. Nearby are stacks of the latest issue of Taproot, Issue 24, themed “Rest.” What does that mean? Articles on spoon carving, botanical art, making feta, natural food dyes, a pattern for a cardigan and another for a stuffed cat for children, suggestions for winter cakes and a long piece on making a quilt from scraps. It is the kind of magazine that makes it seem just fine to curl into winter, ideal even.

This office, which represents the editorial side of the magazine, came together on a timeline even speedier than that first issue of Taproot. In September, after several months renting space at Think Tank CoWorking on Congress Street, Soule met Lauren Pignatello, the proprietor of Milk and Honey.

Amanda Blake Soule of Taproot and Lauren Pignatello of Swallowtail Farm’s Milk and Honey talk with a café customer early this month. The magazine’s new office is located in the café.

“Everyone assumed we already knew each other,” Pignatello said. That’s because she and her husband, Sean, have seven children, all born at home, like Soule’s, and Pignatello is also a maker and entrepreneur. She runs an herbal apothecary and a creamery that produces yogurt and cheeses, as well as the café. Pignatello was sharing the space with various enterprises, including until fairly recently, the Portland Winter Farmers’ Market, and making the rent had become a struggle, she said. But she didn’t want to let Milk and Honey go.

Soule had a proposition. They could share the space and not only would the magazine have an office with coffee, tea and meals at the ready, Taproot would also have room for a showcase for the handcrafted, made in the U.S.A. items that Soule was already curating for an online Taproot “pop-up” twice a year.

After a renovation accomplished on nights and weekends by their combined big families, the Taproot market sits behind Pignatello’s counter full of goodies and off to the side of Soule’s big table. There are back issues of six years’ worth of Taproot, a collection of books about fermenting and growing your own vegetables, even one on picnicking. There’s also a tempting array of children’s blocks made from polished driftwood and bound in fishing nets; candles that smell exactly like wood smoke; and stacks of ceramic garlic graters in the palest, most serene of blues.

It would be tempting to describe 84 Cove St. as Amanda Blake Soule’s serenity now, but that would be to suggest her tranquility is fleeting. With Soule, it seems more like serenity always.

‘EVERYBODY’S MOM’

Soule is an eighth-generation Mainer. She grew up in a house near the Coast Guard station in South Portland, the oldest of four daughters. Her mother, DeeDee, had her children young and ran a daycare center; she was, Soule said, a “pretty classic” homemaker. “It was really important to her to keep a clean house.” Her father, Tom Blake, has been mayor of South Portland (three times), started the neighborhood association and helped establish the South Portland land trust (he’s still on the board of directors). “He has five jobs,” Soule says. “He’s busy and has a lot of energy and loves community.” The Blakes are still in the home where Soule and her sisters grew up.

On Instagram as soulemama, the author/blogger/editor tagged this photo “Afternoon plans!” Jennifer Reese, a reader and blogger in her own right from California, says Soule “has a beautiful vision of home and family that is very real.”

When she was a child, Soule spent a lot of time with her grandparents, particularly her grandmothers. Her fraternal grandmother was a seamstress who lived in Falmouth, her maternal grandmother a farmer in Madison. Soule spent much of her summers in Madison, and when she was away from that grandmother, wrote to her religiously every week. It was her mother’s mother who told Soule she’d be a writer and tucked those letters away. “She saved all of them,” Soule said. “It was such a gift.”

Her grandmother the seamstress would take her to JoAnn’s Fabrics on a Friday after school, let her pick out fabric and over the weekend, they’d make something that Soule would then wear to school on Monday. “It was this double-edged sword of not wanting to draw attention to myself but loving making a skirt out of vintage ties.”

When Soule arrived in Orono to attend the University of Maine, her plan was to study journalism. She admired her mother’s life and wanted her own big family, but as a teenager, “I thought I wanted to do more.” Still, an urge to create a home for herself, even in a dorm where conformity is typically the rule, kept surfacing. “I would move out every piece of dorm furniture,” she said, replacing it with flea market finds, until it felt like a true home. She became a resident advisor. “I was everybody’s mom,” she said. “It was just the role I always had.” She majored in women’s studies and English, with an eye toward a life of activism.

Which is what, she says, she found, although it is a different kind of activism than the sort that involves developing an intimate familiarity with say, the hallway outside Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Portland. Her activism was more about lifestyle: homeschooling, home canning, home-having. She found the right partner for it, Steve Soule, when she was just 23. Again, she was decisive. “I moved in with him after 10 days,” Soule said.

A monthlong farm-sitting gig at Broadturn Farm, where they had been CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) customers and then become good friends with farmers Stacy Brenner and John Bliss helped convince them they wanted to farm themselves. Soon they were actively looking for a farm somewhere within 60 miles of Portland, with an old house and room for their growing family and some livestock; it took years to find what they wanted and could afford.

“I think in some ways I wrote the life I wanted to live,” Soule said. Life led the writing, she added, “and the writing sort of leading us to where we want to be.”

Taproot, on display at the magazine’s Portland office.

Her arrival on the national scene – entirely through word of mouth – was well-timed. The national mommy blogger movement was catching on. Utah-based Heather Armstrong of Dooce.com was the edgy stay-at-home mother who lamented about appliances that didn’t work and the layers of dirt in her house. If she was the mother you were, Soule was the mother you aspired to be, naming knitting patterns after her children and teaching herself how to spin. Armstrong is divorced now, and the tagline at Dooce is “an unfiltered fire hose of flaming condemnation.” Soule is still the mother you aspire to be.

LOVING LOOKY LOOS

Stepping into Soule’s farmhouse, the first impression is of pots bubbling on big stove, a smallish Christmas tree already twinkling away in the living room beyond. She’s cooking for her sister Michelle who just delivered her fourth child the day before (bringing the number of DeeDee and Tom Blake’s grandchildren up to 15). The pulled pork made from one of the three pigs the Soule family raises every year is already packaged up and ready to go and the sausage and beans and hearty chicken soup are simmering.

The house is set on a ridge between two lakes in Central Maine; Soule prefers that its exact location not be disclosed. She has fans who feel they know her from her blog and from her books, the first of which, “The Creative Family” was published in 2008 (an updated version was just released in October). Sometimes these fans feel they ought to be able to drop by and visit the friend they’re never met. “Lots of slow drivebys,” Soule said. Sometimes they turn into the driveway. It’s flattering, but to a busy mother and entrepreneur, not exactly welcome.

It takes a good writer to create that kind of intimacy with readers. “I feel like I could find my way around that farm blindfolded,” said Jennifer Reese, a longtime reader in California who also blogs (and would never stop by uninvited).

Reese writes at Tipsybaker.com, ostensibly about cookbooks but more often about life refracted (wittily) through domesticity. She is also the author of “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter,” a practical cookbook for the aspirational home cook, the kind of person who can’t go full-SouleMama but dreams of it. Reese is one of Soule’s nearly 37,000 followers on Instagram, and still a reader of the blog, even as Soule has moved to posting much less.

“The Creative Family Manifesto,” an updated version of a 2008 book by Soule, was released in October.

“While I’ve ended up souring on almost every other lifestyle blogger, never on Amanda,” Reese said. “She’s never smug. She’s never preachy. She never seems to be showing off, and at this point I really don’t think she is. She has a beautiful vision of home and family that is very real and her blog is an expression of this, a celebration of it. I can’t live like she does because I’m not her, but at no point has she ever made me feel like I should.”

TIME FOR SOCKS?

Four children are at home on that Tuesday morning. Adelaide, 12, Harper, 9 and Annabel, 6, all of whom have their mother’s bright blue eyes, are all still home schooled, including by a tutor on the three days a week Soule goes to Taproot’s office. Ezra, 14, would customarily be in Portland at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science School, where he’s a freshman, but he’s got the day off. Calvin, who turns 17 next month, is a junior at the Waldorf school in Freeport. It was his decision to leave the home schooling nest – Soule assumed she’d homeschool the children until they were 18.

“Calvin really led the way,” Soule said. “He made a case for it and did all the work to make it happen.”

It’s not clear what will happen with the rest of the children, in terms of going to school versus staying home, but for Soule, this is a time of contentment. Teenagers, she says, “are awesome,” unexpectedly. “I was holding my breath for so long.”

Only Annabel wants to accompany her mother outside for a tour of the farm. There are Shetland sheep, Nigerian goats barely bigger than a corgi, as well as three friendly cats. Greta, the farm’s guardian dog, is inside, snoozing before her regular night shift. The pigs and many of the 85 meat birds are already in the freezer. The 6-year-old goes looking for her coat and then sits on the floor to put on her boots. Her feet are bare and Soule bends to cup Annabel’s small foot in her hands.

“Maybe it’s time for socks?” she asks.

It’s December.

“Not yet,” Annabel tells her mother, confidently pulling on the boot.

Afterward, driving away from the simple farmhouse full of cheer, it occurs to you; on that walk there was no whining about anything at all, including cold feet.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

 

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