Sisters and native Vermonters, Cam Sato and Abbie Bowker, wrote and illustrated a children’s picture book, Woolly Bear Winter, soon-to-be-released by Voices of Vermonters Publishing Group, Inc., Wind Ridge Books imprint, that will inspire woolly-mittened nature adventurers out into a February-flaked, snowy winter.
The author and illustrator were born in Williston in an 142-year-old, 500-acre historic family farm, a diverse landscape of rolling terrain—from forest and steep rocky trails to flat open land. Sato and Bowker’s great-great-grandfather, an inventor and gentleman farmer, maintained the property as a producing dairy farm until the barns burned down when their father was still in high school. That was a turning point: the family decided it would be too much to rebuild and then try to eke out a living through farming. Instead, they chose to turn the land over to recreational use and begin what they referred to as the “farming of fun,” a place now known as the Catamount Outdoor Family Center.
The transition from working farm to recreational area gave Sato and Bowker rather different childhood experiences. Sato remembers pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, sheep and lambs raised in the kitchen, one old paint pasture pony and clacking antlers together in the forest to call for deer. Bowker recalls exploring trails and wilderness, camping and woodland adventures. However, both sisters shared childhoods connected to nature and the land with an intimate awareness of place.
“I learned a lot about nature and animal lore from my family stories—a special kind of folklore,” Bowker says. “Whether the land was used for recreation or for farming, our family needed to read nature’s signs so they might know what to expect. Our mother’s Aunt Grace once said that because our family lived off the land, we needed to cue in to nature in ways that other people don’t pay attention to anymore. Signs indicating changes in weather, storms, dry or wet summers and snowy winters. As children, one clue we’d love to chase were the woolly bear caterpillars. We’d look at their stripes to try to tell whether it was going to be a good snowy winter.”
“And if we saw hornets’ nests built way up high, we could safely predict that we would have deep snow that year,” Sato says.
Bowker says, “There is science in some reading of those signs in nature, although sadly, I found that the woolly bear’s stripes come from what it’s been eating and how many times it’s molted—but it’s still a favorite tale, although probably not the most reliable snow predictor.”
Eventually, their childhoods led them to become an illustrator and poet. Bowker drew a lot as child and set up a special place in a doorless cupboard to draw while her parents were at work. “Now I am a high school art teacher and I draw from all of my life experiences—my imagination and from nature,” she says. “To draw animals directly from nature is a bit of a challenge though because bears and bunnies just can’t be made to sit still.”
Sato’s love for language came from her parents reading to them. Two A.A. Milne books were her favorites, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Later, Sato had an eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Wright, who showed her how to make beautiful sentences, she says. “ At the end of the schoolyear there was a utopian writing contest and I won.” Sato says. “From that moment on, I was hooked.”
Woolly Bear Winter emerged when Sato wanted to enter a contest for writing a story in verse. “I take daily walks with my dog on the bike path and saw tons of woolly bears,” she says. “I heard the ‘woolly bear, woolly bear’ refrain in my head and it just wouldn’t let me go.”
Bowker says Sato sent the poem to her for feedback. “I kept that email starred and in my inbox for four years,” Bowker says. “I could see what a wonderful children’s book it would be. Then I took a children’s picture book illustration class at the Writers’ Barn in Shelburne and used that opportunity to prepare my work. We’re all such global tumbleweeds today that Cam and I wanted to share just Vermont animals in Woolly Bear. It’s wonderful to have a good sense of where you are—or in our case, a place you and your family have been for 142 years.”