Stories from the Leopold Shack Book Review and Interview with Estella Leopold
Oxford University press has just published a new book by Estella Leopold called Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited. Estella’s essays document an up-close and personal view into the family’s loving connection to the Shack property and to one another over the years.
I finished reading the book not long after our May board meeting, when Estella did a reading (which you can watch online) and shared some special early release copies to kick off the fundraising for our Future Leaders program. Hearing stories about the Leopold legacy directly from family has always felt like a special privilege of being part of the foundation’s community. Reading this book magnified that feeling many times over, because with these words, Estella has extended that privilege for the world to enjoy and share.
Readers will recognize something universal about the family experience in Estella’s Stories. Each chapter reveals an intimate glimpse into the day-to-day experience of what it was like to be a part of the Leopold clan. You’ll meet their pets, learn about their special places and stories, and experience the thrill of their daily discoveries: about the landscape and about their own capabilities, both of which were crystallized through their unique Shack experience.
I enjoyed reading this book immensely—it helped me to see what had been a familiar landscape and legacy through totally new eyes. In fact, I had so many new questions after finishing the book that I decided to reach out Estella directly to get some additional insights to share with our readers.
A Conversation With Estella Leopold
I understand that you originally began working on Stories from the Leopold Shack as a way to pass along precious family history to the many descendants of the Leopold family. Can you tell us about how this idea developed from a collection of family stories into a full-blown book project?
Yes. At first several years ago I was just wondering how best to use my time on long flights to Madison and back to see Nina and the family. I started carrying a legal size yellow tablet with me and began to write about the early days at the shack with no particular outline. I wanted the young people in the family to know about our personal background and history at the shack.
Eventually for fun I delivered the tablet to a typist at school. When she handed the typed version to me she told me how entertaining the stories were, which was a surprise to me. I then began to pick and choose what was logical in a sequence, and put some better order to the “notes.” In the next stage I started to write favorite stories that I knew the grandchildren sometimes asked about. Because the shack was such an important part of our family life it was easy to start thinking about it as a document for the young family members to ponder. A friend looked it over and suggested I make these into a book. It went on from there.
Your father was well-known for doing his writing in the wee hours of the morning, writing in longhand with a sharp pencil on a yellow pad. Can you tell us what your own writing process was like for this book?
It started with a big yellow pad of paper and travel time. I kept the tablet in the top drawer of my desk at home. In packing for a trip I added the tablet to my luggage, and began to build on the stories longhand. I favored easy-to-use ink pens.
Oh, of course my Dad used a very sharp pencil, and in the earliest morning hours wrote and edited his wonderful stories. We all remember his pulling out his sharp jack knife and carefully sharpening his yellow pencils periodically. He would let the draft essay “cool” in a drawer for some weeks before going back and editing (improving) the text (several times over). So his was a very deliberate writing skill and edits to make the story feel real. I myself was not at all thinking about his writing, but was simply motivated by wanting to recall for the grandchildren what we all did together and what fun it typically was.
What was it like for you to revisit all of your Shack experiences for this project? Were any of the essays difficult to write?
Mostly the book was lots of fun to write. With each story I felt I was in part re-living the happenings. Yes as a matter of fact, some stories were difficult to re-live. Trying to describe that day of April 21, 1948, was difficult—It was a very frightening day, and so painful to recall. We three (Mother, Dad and I) had such a wonderful week leading up to that day. But the entire day of the 21st was chilling, and hard to describe all that happened. How we felt. For Mother it was particularly devastating.
Another difficult day was during Gus’s last hunt, which was such a sobering experience. The smallest mistake in Dad’s paddling alone across that swollen river in that flimsy duckboat, and we could have lost Dad! I was quite terrified for him. Further it must have been very hard for him to put our dear Gus out of his misery. So fear was a real element in some of our experiences there. As Dad once told me (about his close call with lightening in the Apache), “One learns to have a good deal of respect for fear,” he said.
People that enjoy camping today will definitely relate to many aspects of your family’s Shack experience— including the fact that you cooked and ate lots of tasty food there! Do you have any recipes that you still make and enjoy today from those days?
Oh yes. Camp cooking. Of course an important procedure is the making of sourdough pancakes in the mornings at the shack. I can reel off the steps for that. And another was Kidney Stew and rice. A meal of Dutch-oven cooked pheasant was pretty grand with baby potatoes & butter. Hard to beat. We made extra pancakes in the AM and prepared them as a cheese sandwich at noon later in the day. Terrific. I still love these camp meals. Making bread in the Dutch oven was a particular art. We also made our own tortillas.
Your mother’s Spanish heritage was another big part of your childhood– how have those traditions continued to enrich your life today?
Oh I think we siblings were all quite proud of being Hispanic. The first signal of that was the music. We simply loved singing together the songs that at early on Mother taught us, and later songs we collected in New Mexico and loved. Some of these were solo and some we tried to do with harmony. We worked hard to play these with flourish on the guitar, which was a fun instrument for Starker, Luna Carl and me. Nina did not play but loved our music and sang with us. Of course we did other kinds of ballads as well and in various languages for fun. This effort drew us in to learning Spanish with the right pronunciation. Our grandfather was a concert pianist who loved classical Spanish and Cuban music. He was a good influence helping us appreciate this kind of music.
The second signal was our jewelry. If you spend time in Santa Fe you learn to love silver. We all wore silver bracelets and that included Starker and Luna. We girls collected silver concha belts, earrings, pins, rings and the like. And with turquoise too.
A third signal was the clothes we wore at Fiesta time in Santa Fe. Every early September was a regular Fiesta in Santa Fe, and we were able to attend some of these celebrations, get all dolled up and had such a grand time. We had many cousins, aunts and uncles in Santa Fe so that made it an especially rich experience. Better speak Spanish to keep up! One time Brother Luna was asked to dance in costume with a lovely young woman on the roof of the La Fonda Hotel at one Fiesta. We all remember that festive occasion amidst many candelarios.
Your stories reveal an extraordinarily personal connection to the Shack landscape. What do you hope that visitors to the Shack today learn from your family’s efforts?
Oh, that is a hard one. At first when we established the (Shack) Foundation I thought the main thing the visitor should learn was to realize the steps in transformation that had taken place. There was a story behind each of these parcels of land. They should know just what went into restoring a prairie. I wanted people to know what was involved in growing your own pine forest. There was a story intrinsic to our shack fireplace. To the chimney at the Shack.
But the real focus of these stories was meant to be for the grandchildren, who above all will want to perceive the background to our family experiences, our personal stories. I wanted the young family members to know that the entire effort was an eye-opening exciting experience and fun – it was a kind of step-wise evolution accompanied by love. And that is why this book was fun to write!