I saw persimmons for the first time in Korea, tasted them for the first time here. Even though we have persimmons in the States, I don’t recall seeing them in Denver as a kid and I wouldn’t have recognized them afterward in Connecticut. I knew the word, “persimmon,” and nothing more; the name reminded me of “cinammon,” and so for no better reason than association I always expect the fruit to be slightly spicy, as if it had been cold-mulling in its skin all autumn.
Persimmons in Korea are of two varieties, neither spiced, however. Dan-gam, the non-astringent variety, are sweet and crisp right off the branch, but hong-shi (also known as Hachiya in the West) are too astringent to eat when firm. We leave them to become a natural jelly in their skins over the course of the season and eat them then, when the tannins responsible for the astringency have broken down.
Harvesting the persimmon trees is the fourth-year students’ job at school. A “plush” task, in that we rarely spend more than several afternoons doing it and don’t need to break a sweat, the work requires a long gaff with a pronged end, either to twist off individual persimmons, or to grasp a main branch and shake it, causing all the persimmons dangling from the ends of the networked branches to fall. The majority of us stood below the trees with a large blanket to catch the falling fruit and keep it from bruising or breaking against the ground.
I like the etymology of the genus name, diospyros, which is glossed on a variety of sites as meaning both “fruit of the gods” and “fire of the gods.” The common name in English is derived from putchamin, pasiminan, or pessamin, all from Powhatan, an Algonquin language, and meaning simply “dried fruit.” It’s the genus name, with the suggestion of fire, that I like best. I like it best because every November, as the evenings creep further into gloom, the last fruits left on the bare black branches begin to gleam like small lanterns. They have lit many of my roads home, in North Jeolla and North Gyeongsang and to and from Seoul.
It’s the last fall and winter at school. Graduation is less than three weeks away. By the time we return from the short winter solstice vacation beginning tomorrow, we’ll have only two weeks until graduation. In our four years here, we’ve harvested everything from green plums (in the first year) to sweet potatoes and field greens (second year) and gingko berries (third year). That the last harvest should be both sweet and astringent is apt, I think, reflecting the nature of both community life and spiritual practice. Not sour, but tannic, that something that asks only time, until it too changes, and gives way.