Deep into one of the 350 remaining cork oak forests (in my case Herdade dos Fidalgos, near Lisbon) sometime between June and August you'll suddenly come across a team of about 20 men, ranging in ages from 16 to 70, striking huge twisted trees with axes. Then, with a sensitivity you would not associate with an axe, they prise the juicy bark from the tree and it is levered from the trunk in great, satisfying pieces. From the base, right up to the beginning of the branches, it is peeled away to reveal the oak's red, nude surface underneath.This was all new to me; I didn't realize that after the cork was harvested the tree regrew a new supply. The interesting essay goes on to discuss the ecology of cork trees ("Each tree sustains 100 species; it is pretty much the only place in which the rare short-toed eagle and extremely rare Iberian lynx will consider living...") and the recent shift in wine-bottle closure preferences. The problem is that if noone uses cork, economic pressures will tempt owners of the cork forests to shift their "crop" to more lucrative trees:
When the tree is completely harvested, the axeman takes a swig from his water barrel and moves on to the next. Periodically, a truck comes to collect the pieces of cork and take them to nearby sheds where they will be weathered for months before being processed. The truck is the only obvious exception to a process that hasn't changed since the 18th century, when montados (open cork oak woodlands) and forests here in Portugal, in southern Spain, Morocco, Algeria and Turkey began to be exploited commercially to produce wine corks. A white number is painted on the tree. It will be nine years before it's disturbed again.
On one side are the cork oaks that take 80 years to reach their first harvest, their canopies stretching over smaller plants. On the other side there's a fast-growing eucalyptus plantation presiding over some very dry soil. The eucalyptus will be ready to be sold for the voracious pulp and paper market in a matter of months. If the market drops further for cork, the decision for the landowner becomes a no-brainer. They plant fast-growing eucalyptus, ecosystem be damned.