Michael: When we were first talking about “Wine and Wisteria”, you told me you tend to write in English, but you acknowledged some Spanish influence on the structure of your writing “creeping in” (which made me happy, in the context of a story about taking care of old grapevines). I love your prose–the informal, oral style is one of the things that drew me to “Wine and Wisteria” in the first place. So I wanted to ask you a bit more about that. I can read Spanish–slowly–and I’ve done enough of that to have maybe a tiny sense of what you meant about finding Spanish “too pretty”. But I’ve read vast swathes more in translation, and I’ve always been interested in what it means to love the sentence structure of a piece of prose that’s translated, without getting to see exactly in what way or to what degree the translator chose to mimic the rhythm of the original. I’ve done a little bit of translating, so I know how that works–for me, the dangerous tendency is to mimic too closely. I also am terribly prone to long sentences in my own writing, which is something I think Spanish lends itself to.
Can you tell me more about how your bilingual experience in Spanish and English influences the way you write, what you write?
Diego: I wish I could. I’ve been wondering what that relationship might be for years. Before I left for Spain my only real reservation for not going was that my English might suffer. Who might I have been or how might I be writing now if I never left the states? I’m not really sure.
What I can say definitively is that I’m two different people depending on the language I speak. And the longer I spend in this country the more that Spanish part of me becomes the real me. I’m becoming less sarcastic, more whimsical, more open and direct. If that’s to do with the language, or the culture or the feedback between the two creating reality, I’m not sure.
There’s an odd lag when I switch languages. If I’ve been talking English with visitors, switching back to a place where I can speak proper Spanish takes me half a day. My accent comes out and it’s harder for me to express myself. I suppose talking Spanish all day and then switching to English at night to write had to affect Wine and Wisteria.
Michael: Do you consciously draw influence from English writers, Spanish writers?
Diego: I think I’m a sponge. I don’t actively draw influences, but whatever I’m reading at the time has always seeped in to what I’m writing. These past few years though, after having to leave my library back in America, and relying on my brother’s, I’ve concentrated on non-fiction in both languages. Especially anthropology, permaculture, ecology, and biology. I think that might have a bit to do with how “Wine and Wisteria” came out so conversational. I might have been escaping from so much structure.
Michael: One of the things you do besides writing is permaculture–in your bio, you’re a forest astronaut, a bosquenauta, which I love. I’ve been trying at this on my own very small piece of land in Southeast Michigan for about six years: food forests take a long time, I gather, but I’ve got apple and cherry trees, strawberries, native onions, comfrey, edible ferns, stinging nettle etc etc in a great disorganized jumble I mean to slowly try to unify into some kind of self-supporting system. I gather from our earlier discussion and your Facebook group that you’re doing this in Spain.
Can you tell me what a food forests look like in the climate where you’re working, and how people interact with it?
Diego: The nice thing about forest gardening, you can have all those disconnected plants and if you leave for five years and come back they would probably all have connected themselves. Found their own self-supporting system. Maybe a wild borage would find its way in, or you’d lose some plants to the shade of new tree growth (although everything you mentioned grows fine in the shade.) You learn to trust that nature knows what it’s doing, to think a bit less, and take Obi-wan’s advice to heart and “stretch out with your feelings.”
Forest gardens here look almost any way you want. Even though we’re basically at the same latitude as New York, we’re protected by the warm air from the gulf of Mexico that crosses the Atlantic just for us. So, on the coast, it almost never freezes and you can have almost any temperate tree growing along with tropical avocados, sapote and bananas. There are even stories that people tell like conspiracy theories about old ladies with mangos and ice-cream bean. “You know what I heard…”
It’s about 15-25 degrees year round, (60-80 degrees in Yankee parlance) which lends itself to ideal tree growth in almost every season, and when you team that with particularly fast growing trees and bushes like alders, elderberries, willows and scotch broom, you can create three dimensional forests pretty quickly while the more edible varieties of trees which take longer to mature grow in the shade.
We’re having a lot of fun these days tying the principles of permaculture and forest gardening into more cultural settings. Some of our projects are simply about production, or personal use, but the more entertaining ones are for therapeutic centers who’d like to have their practice molded into the forest, masseuses who’d like to set their tables up outside, edible forest clearings with stages. The possibilities go on.
Michael: Have you been doing it long enough to see a forest garden approach maturity? How does that work?
My forest is still young (entering its 4th year) so you don’t get a proper feeling of being in the woods at every moment, but there are times when you can catch a glimpse. Last year, for example, when it rained for the first time after months of drought, I could start to feel the soil revive. The microorganisms came out of their comas, and there was an indescribable buzz in the air. Then that feeling mixed up with the dissipated echo of bird songs off the young trees. It was the first time I felt like I was in a forest here.
Michael: Finally, I want to ask you about the generational conflict that to me is at the heart of “Wine and Wisteria”. This to me is one of the hardest challenges in trying to change humanity’s relationship with the earth from something destructive and toxic back to something nurturing and mutually beneficial: influencing the people we love to see things the way we do. And also maybe the most crucial. You show us a moment of frustration and one way to get through that frustration. That’s beautiful, and I really appreciate it. I think it’s something we all need. Can I ask if you were drawing from personal experience? Has that strategy helped you in the long term? Do your parents get what you’re doing with permaculture? Do they approve of it? Or, to take the lesson of the Lavandeira another way, do you think it’s enough, in the long run, for the younger generation to find ways to cope with their loved ones’ misunderstanding and move forward without them?
Diego: My parents are beginning to understand. They think they’re more understanding than they are, but I do appreciate their process.
Almost everyone I’m meeting is kind of going through the same process.
1. They head back to their family land.
Almost everyone in Galicia has access to a little piece of land, because by some strange miracle banks never figured out how to buy everything up so there’s almost as many hectares as owners. And at the same time the entire nation’s been in an economic depression since 2008.
So people are realizing, “Hey, I might not have a job, and I might have been lied to about my education landing me a job, but I do have this small piece of land that I can plant, grow and maintain myself on. And as they start they realize it’s not the hard work they were told farm work has to be. It’s actually kind of fun, satisfying and even fulfilling. Individually, they’re fulfilled.
2. Family dispute about the land.
Parents who hadn’t thought about their land in years see their kids working it and inevitably an argument starts. “What are you doing there?” “But that’s not how you’re supposed to plant things.” “That’s not how my grandpa did things.”
More than anything else, they’re met with misunderstanding, doubt, and flat out refusal from a generation of parents too accustomed to comfort to submit themselves to the discomfort of understanding something new. Even a bucket for food scraps to add on to the compost next to the trash becomes the Iliad. Where on one side are the zealots of reusable bags living at the expense of others, and on the other are the people who are too comfortable to notice they’re living at the expense of others.
4. Years long reconciliation
Everyone’s flawed and nobody’s living well, but we’re all trying. All we can do for the time is have the courage to move beyond our lack of foresight, deal with our emotions like adults, and do it without the support of certain people.
Solutions won’t come from fighting the people we love. If I’m right, they’ll learn on their own time how to change. When I’m wrong, I’ll learn. The fight of our lives can’t be between generations. It needs to be directed into soothing the future. And that involves accepting that some people won’t change at a pace Earth needs, moving past them, and putting energy into helping people who do.
Michael: Thank you, this has been fascinating!