Buried Nitrogen: The Parable of the Persimmon

By Sandra K. Barnidge

The persimmons on her tree were still green, but Cheryl the Neighbor told us to go for it anyway. “Before the critters get ’em,” she said. Possums had been spotted on a neighbor’s persimmon tree the week before. A raccoon family was prowling the neighborhood, too. It was now or never, probably. We couldn’t risk waiting for even a twinge of yellow in the fruit skin, much less the full-on autumnal orange of ripeness.

I lifted my preschool-aged daughter up to the branch hanging into the street that had tempted us in the first place. She twisted the firm persimmon the way Cheryl showed her and yanked as hard as she could. The persimmon didn’t budge. I put my hand over hers and we yanked together, and it tumbled into the street gutter. My daughter chased it and held it up, triumphant. “Apple!” she said, and I decided to go with it. “Persimmon apple,” I suggested. “Green apple,” she nodded, pleased that we were in agreement. I waved to Cheryl, and my daughter and I walked around the corner to our house.

In my neighborhood, Cheryl’s garden is famous. Her arty Craftsman house sits on a prominent corner on the busy road into downtown, and every inch of her yard has been carefully landscaped into a living, blooming sculpture. Blue mistflowers and a massive butterfly bush were erupting when the first persimmons appeared on her tree, but almost every week of the year, something is in its prime in Cheryl’s yard.

The first time I met Cheryl, at another neighbor’s backyard party, I told her I was embarrassed to know so little about how to maintain my own garden, which the previous owners of our house had put a great deal of effort into developing. Already, after only one year under my care, the flower beds were obviously suffering. Privet was sneaking up everywhere, the mondo grass was wildly overgrowing, and some of the wild roses were refusing to bloom, among other failures. “I just don’t know what I’m doing,” I said to Cheryl at the party.

She nodded sympathetically. “I didn’t either, at first. You learn as you go. That’s all there is to it. Oh, and kill any mistletoe you see. It’s bad for the trees.”


Earlier this fall, I went to a book launch for a mentor from my MFA days. A fellow Midwesterner who survived transplantation to Alabama, Michael Martone is as generous with his time as he is productive. He sends postcards to anyone who writes him one, and he’s read manuscripts for just about every writer who’s passed through Tuscaloosa. He also happens to have published thirty books. THIRTY.

At the book launch for his latest one, I couldn’t stop the envy from creeping along my veins like the invasive mistletoe Cheryl warned me to keep off my tree branches. As I sat thumbing through my copy of Martone’s book, I felt a sinking in my stomach about my own work. I’d just received some tough love on my latest manuscript from my agent. I felt a sense of hopelessness at the reading; it wasn’t looking like I’d ever manage to publish one book, much less thirty.

Don’t compare yourself to other writers, I tried to remind myself. Creative paths are singularities, any given one impossible to replicate. My path was already very different from Martone’s, and it would continue to be.                                   

Keep the mistletoe off the trees.

So easy to say. So very, very hard to do.


My daughter noticed the budding persimmons during our daily walks home from school, and she begged to “get the apple.” Cheryl told us to take as many as we wanted, and over the course of a week, we picked six before the rest of crop abruptly disappeared one night. (The critters finally got ’em.)

The first persimmon we picked went into a decorative bowl in my daughter’s room. I had no idea what to do with it; I’d never eaten one, much less picked one or attempted to cook with it. I didn’t know then that we were in possession of a Fuyu persimmon, a firm fruit with no seeds that tastes like a cross between a Gala apple and a Bartlett pear. I figured it would ripen in a few days, but as the persimmons piled up in the bowl, none of them got any less green than when we’d first twisted them off their branches. I put them in the fridge, in a bag with ethylene-exhaling apples. No change.

We ran into Cheryl again during another of our walks, and I told her the persimmons still weren’t ripening. She shrugged. “I just eat them green,” she said.

I went home and cut into the biggest one, amazed by the star-shaped pattern of its veins. Tentatively, I tasted a slice and immediately smiled. “Try this!” I said to my daughter and husband. Crisp, cool, earthy sweet. I turned two of them into muffins. Three more I cut like apples, and we ate them with cheese and nuts and honey. The last had the best fate: I incorporated it into an apple-cider banana bread that we shared with Cheryl.

Energized by my success with the persimmons, I went out into my own garden and cut back the mondo grass. I pulled up privet and fertilized the roses.

I finished another round of revisions on my new manuscript, and my agent sent it out to editors.


From seedlings, Fuyu persimmon trees take five to seven years to mature and bear fruit. Once they get started, though, they’ll produce for decades. There’s no rushing their growth, but there’s plenty of time to enjoy their vigorous output.

I’ve been writing novel manuscripts for six years now. One way to look at my career, if you can call what I’m doing a career, is to say the first fledgling “fruits” of it are beginning to grow. No editor/preschooler has yet selected my offerings to publish/take home with them, but that’s okay. There’s plenty of time yet. And the longer the manuscripts stay with me, the bigger and riper they’ll become, since—as far as I know—my books aren’t under serious threat of getting stolen by possums.

Cheryl was right; I’m learning as I go. That’s all there is to it.

Read Sandra’s other work here at Reckon:

Fiction – River Dolls

Buried Nitrogen: The Tragedy of the Brussel Sprout

Sandra K. Barnidge

Sandra K. Barnidge is an Alabama-based writer with a passion for small towns and overlooked places. Her fiction leans speculative and has appeared in Barren, Nimrod, The Fiddlehead, Reckon Review, Reservoir Ridge, and elsewhere. sandrabarnidge.com