Before my father retired in Mexico City, he plotted on paper the placement of 14,000 apple trees and a sprinkler irrigation system on land he owned in the state of Chihuahua. However, as the time arrived for the actual planting of the trees he began to have second thoughts. “It will be five years before these trees come into production,” he told my mother. “Do you realize that I will be 70 years old by then?” She wiped her hands on her apron and said simply, “Well, do you want to be 70 with 14,000 fruit trees or 70 with no trees?” He planted the trees and enjoyed the fruits of his labor for 33 years before passing away at age 98.
My brother Dale recently sent me some information about the production of cork. Age plays an important role in its successful harvesting. Over half the world’s cork is harvested in Spain and Portugal—in fact it is the “National Tree” of Portugal. Unlike other forms of forestry, the production of cork seldom involves the death of the tree. Instead, they are gently stripped of their bark leaving a strange but fascinating landscape of denuded trunks.
Cork trees can live to over 200 years but are not considered ready for their cork to be removed until they are at least 25 years old. Even then, the first two harvests do not produce cork of the highest quality. It isn’t until the trees are in their forties that they produce premium cork. Once the trees have reached the maturity necessary to produce high quality cork they will be harvested only every nine years. A tree, in its lifetime, can be harvested (the process is known as extraction) about fifteen times. Little wonder then, that in Spain and Portugal the propagation of trees and the production of cork has become an inter-generational industry, with farmers still producing a crop from trees planted by their great-great grandfathers.
The cork must be extracted from the trees without causing any lasting harm to them—otherwise, nine years later they will be useless. The poor cork that is produced as a result of the first two harvests is known as male cork. (There must be a moral here someplace!) Later extractions provide what is known as gentle cork, which is what you will screw out of a wine bottle, the contents of which it helps to flavor.
The techniques used to harvest the cork leave the trees alive and the environment intact. Cork production is said to be one of the most eco-friendly and recyclable harvests on the planet. The trees prevent the local environment from becoming arid thereby actively helping to maintain rare ecosystems. Not only that, but the cork forests of the Iberian Peninsula are home to a number of endangered species.
Although 60% of the cork extracted is still used for bottle stoppers (despite the recent predilection for using alternatives) cork is an essential component of a number of other things including its use in baseballs, cricket bats and shuttlecocks. Cork is also a great material to use for insulation. It is non-allergenic and easy to handle, and if it does catch fire, its fumes are not toxic like man-made insulation materials. Different segments of woodwind instruments are fastened together by pieces made from cork. Even the baton of the concert conductor will most likely be made out of this versatile material. Cork is also used in components of fairings and heat shields of spacecraft.
Apple trees take a certain number of years to bear fruit. The best cork is produced from the oldest trees. In many indigenous societies around the world, age was once considered to be worthy of respect and even reverence. Nowadays it seems that youth is held up to be revered and the aged are just that—aged, past their prime and of not much use to anybody. In reality, I think there is much to be learned from the elderly. Young folks ought to know that we old folks know more about being young than they know about being old. Cicero said that the old have what the young wish they had: The one wishes to live long; the other has lived long.
As my father pondered whether or not to plant the apple trees, perhaps he could have taken counsel from the words of Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “I could not at any age be content to take my place in a corner by the fireside and simply look on. Life was meant to be lived. One must never, for whatever reason, turn one’s back on life.”
Old trees produce premium cork. An old, crumpled twenty-dollar bill is just as valuable as a crisp new one, and, when the game is over, the king and the pawn go into the same box.