Put a Cork in it – The Cork Trees of Portugal

Homemade Liqueurs - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netEver think about where that cork came from that you just pulled (maybe in pieces) from your wine bottle?  If you’re like us, the answer would be a resounding “Never” and maybe a suggestion to “Get a life.”  Sometimes an item that we see daily, handle and casually toss away when we’re through with it takes on a whole new significance when we learn more about it.  Until we moved to the Algarve Region of Portugal, all we knew about cork was that it was handy to pin notes on, provided a cushioning footbed in our favorite sandals, served as a convenient little coaster to prevent those unsightly rings on our table and lent a festive “Pop!” when pulled from a bottle of quality champagne.  However, in the souvenir shops and vendor stalls found in Lagos and other towns up and down the coast of Portugal, cork products are a big business and you might wonder just what all the fuss is about.

Partially stripped cork oak tree

Partially stripped cork oak tree

Our curiosity was piqued and, when we mentioned our newly found interest in cork (who would have thought?) a friend of ours told us about a tour given by the family owned company, Novacortiça Cork Factory.  We booked a visit online and set off one morning on a pleasant one-hour drive to nearby São Brás de Alportel, a village in the foothills of the Serra do Caldeirão mountains, regarded by those in the know as one of the best regions of cork in the world.  It wasn’t hard to find the place (and yeah, there was a big sign too!) as there were huge piles of tree bark, almost all neatly stacked and baled in the front and along the sides of the building.  And the smell?  A bit hard to describe but an aromatic combination of sweet and earthy that took us back several years to stacking freshly cut wood for our fireplace.  Only better.

harvested cork

harvested cork

It all starts with Portugal’s national tree, protected by a strict law that makes it illegal to cut down any cork tree in Portugal without permission from the government.  It takes twenty-five years for the cork oak to grow large enough for the first stripping of the bark in the hot summer months by a highly skilled cutter, a tirador, who peels away door-sized cuttings using a specifically purposed hand-axe.  The virgin cork has an irregular structure and is very rough and brittle, hence its main use is as wall and flooring insulation.  The second cutting, after a period of 9 years or more, in which the outer bark regenerates, yields a denser bark but it isn’t until the third cutting, that occurs any time after the tree is 43 years old, that a high quality cork, compressed and pliable and suitable for wine stoppers, is finally harvested.  Which makes the Portuguese saying, “Plant a cork oak for your grandchildren” easy to understand.  And, since the trees can live up to 250 years old and yield a harvest every nine years (the year of the stripping is painted on the bark) they can be a valuable heritage for many future generations.

Cork oak before stripping

Cork oak before stripping

cork oak after stripping

cork oak after stripping

Cork oaks are never completely stripped. Different areas of the tree can be harvested at different intervals.

Cork oaks are never completely stripped. Different areas of the tree can be harvested at different intervals.

We sat through a well-presented lecture about how cork is processed and wine stoppers are made before our tour of the plant and asked so many questions that the German couple next to us started giving us dirty looks that perfectly conveyed the meaning, “Let’s get a move-on, you nerds!” as well as “Get a life.”  Once the actual tour started we still asked questions but tried not to embarrass ourselves further while we racked up “most fascinated tourist” points with our guide.

There are several steps that go into making the heretofore underappreciated wine stopper:

  • The pieces of harvested cork are boiled to remove dirt and insects which also softens it and makes it easier to work with.
  • The rough outer layer of bark is removed by hand.
trimming the cork

trimming the cork

  • The planks are sorted by quality and thickness and cut into pieces that make them easier to work with.
Squeezing water from cleaned cork

Squeezing water from cleaned cork

  • Whole bottle stoppers or the discs that comprise the “technical corks” can be hand or machine punched .
  • The majority of Novacortica Cork Factory’s end product are the discs for the more economical “technical corks” or “one-plus-one corks.”  A cylinder of agglomerate cork comprises the center of the bottle stopper with a disc of natural cork at each end.  The disc portion of the cork is what comes into contact with the wine so that the taste is not tainted.
cork discs - Novacortica

cork discs – Novacortica

The beauty of any product made with cork is that there is no waste.  Any cork scrap can be ground up, molded into large blocks or pressed into sheets to make fabrics and upholstery, handbags, shoes, hats, flooring, fishing floats and even surfboards.  It can be textured, dyed and burned.  It’s completely natural, completely renewable and completely recyclable.

We can honestly say we’ll never look at a “cork” the same way again!

A few factoids:

  • Cork stoppers for different qualities of wine range from 5 cents to 3 euros (about $3.36) for the finest of champagnes.
A variety of corks for different libations-Novacortica

A variety of corks for different libations

  • Portugal produces 50% of the world’s cork.  Cork oaks also grow in the Mediterranean climates of Spain, Algeria, Morocco, France, Italy and Tunisia.
  • Cork has a honeycomb cell structure which gives it remarkable insulating properties.  It’s flexible, compressible and elastic as well as lightweight, impermeable, durable and hypoallergenic.
  • The cork oak forests have been called “Europe’s Amazon forests” and are amazingly biodiverse regions that conserve water and soil as well as provide wildlife habitat.  Cork oak trees store carbon (and reduce greenhouse gases) in order to regenerate their bark.
  •  And lastly, here’s a link about Wine Corks that has even more fascinating information.  Thanks Dyanne at TravelnLass.com for sharing the heads-up with us!

By Anita and Richard

cork upholstered couch - Novacortica

cork upholstered couch – Novacortica

Quality handbags - high cork products

Quality handbags – high end cork products

 

 

70 comments

  • Do you know a company in central Portugal (Setubal) which offer the service of relocation of cork trees? I bought a lote and have on the lote many cork trees which can’t be cutted down (i also don’t want to cut them down). I just want to relocate the trees a bit at side because they are exactly within that position where i want to build a house. Any idea about a specialized company for this task?

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  • My husband is considering a hat made from cork. He is worried that it might not keep its shape. How is yours holding out?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The hats are tempting, aren’t they? The hat we bought looks great still and has kept its shape well although we haven’t subjected it to a lot of rolling or packing. We’ve really been pleased with how Richard’s shoes and a pair of sandals I bought later are holding up as we’ve worn them quite a lot and my wallet, which gets used almost every day, looks as nice as the day I bought it. So far, all the items we’ve bought have proven to be very durable and a great value for the money!

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  • Corking good story you two, full of great info as usual. Like you, we’ll never look at a cork quite the same way again. Plus, every time we pop the stopper on a new bottle, we’ll remember where the plug came from.
    Keep ’em coming.

    ME/BE

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the great pun! We love going on tours where you learn something completely fascinating about an item that you’d never give much thought about and our tour at Novacortica definitely fit the bill. We’ve had a great time checking out the cork products in the tourist shops – shoes, hats, wallets, jewelry – and like you,we’ll never take the “lowly” cork for granted again!

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  • That was a fun day. Who knew that a cork factory could be so interesting. I have a photo of Dick sitting on that sofa. I will dig it up when I catch my breath from listening to and marking 100 final English presentations!

    Liked by 1 person

  • I would so would have been that person getting the dirty looks from other people on the tour. Maybe it’s a travel blogger thing. Nah, I always asked too many questions even before I was a travel blogger. Thanks for sharing in such detail. Nerds of the world, unite!

    Liked by 1 person

    • They say that learning something new everyday keeps your mind sharp and we can’t think of a better way to learn than by traveling or living in a new country. Hopefully, the day we quit asking questions Suzanne, is the day we quit breathing. And look at all the interesting people we share that curiosity with! 🙂

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  • What a fascinating post…thanks for sharing it! We visited a cork store in Lisbon with all types of beautiful (and quite expensive) products. I came home with a cheap bracelet and now know a little bit more about from where it came!

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    • As you saw, Irene, the variety of cork products is amazing and many of the products, especially handbags, have hit some of the high end fashion markets. And now that you see what’s involved in processing cork, it’s a lot easier to understand why some of these products are so (expensive!) and unique. We love taking friends to some of the cork stores for the first time – so fun to watch them ooh and ahh like we did (and still do) when we see some of the beautiful items and ways that cork has been used.

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  • We first came across trees in Spain. Our friends told us that at the right time of the year you can watch them harvesting the cork. And if that isn’t fascinating enough (I know, it shouldn’t be but it is), at other times of the year you can watch the black pigs running from tree to tree and gobbling up all of the dropped acorns. Can you say Patra Negra! So these trees not only give us the stoppers for our favorite bottles of wine, but they also give us some of the most delectable ham (and some of the most expensive) on the planet! I would LOVE to take this tour, next we’re in Portugal, we’re in!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We tasted quite a lot of Spain’s delicious (and you’re right, very expensive!) ham that came from the acorn-eating pigs when we were in Seville earlier this year but never put that fact together with the cork trees. Now we have to do some more research and learn about the black pigs. (Is it too nerdy to say that we’re looking forward to it?) One thing about living in a new country on a new continent – there’s no shortage of fascinating things to learn!

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  • Is it just here in Holland, or are corks being used much less often in wine bottles? Even what are considered decent quality wines seem to all have screw tops these days! I found this article surprisingly interesting, though the cork sofa doesn’t look comfortable!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that the plastic bottle stoppers are gaining in popularity and acceptance due to the costs and convenience. However, there’s definitely something to be said about the ritual of opening a bottle of wine and the psychological factor that makes it taste just a little bit better. And we’re glad that our post surprised you, Rachel – Who would have thought that cork could be so interesting? 🙂

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  • What an education you just provided me on all things cork! Cork purses, cork couches, what!?! I never really thought too much about cork and it’s really fascinating. Thanks for all the great info.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We never thought about cork much either, Sue and our curiosity was piqued when we saw our first cork tree as well as the multitude of cork products available at the souvenir shops. Granted we go off on a some esoteric tangents from time to time but we had a great time learning about cork and sharing what we learned too!

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  • I knew that cork is a natural product (even though it seems that a high percentage of bottle corks in the US are now made of a plastic-like cork substitute); however, I had no idea how long it takes for a tree to produce this cork bark. So glad that Portugal is protecting and regulating its cork trees so they can be sustainably harvested, over and over again. Fascinating post – thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Thank you for ‘extending’ our Portugal visit – we never got a chance to visit any cork farms, although we saw plenty of the trees while we drove through Alentejo, and we were curious about the production process and how they were harvested.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you loved Portugal and can see what all the fuss is about! We have yet to visit the Alentejo region and are looking forward to taking a road trip in the next few months to see the area. In addition to the cork trees there appear to be many more fascinating things to learn as well as beautiful countryside to explore!

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  • I’m one of those people who hadn’t actually spent too much time meditating on the origins of cork… but you hooked me and it’s fascinating. Corks are so ubiquitous you I never gave them a second thought, let alone considered they might come from a living tree – even though I knew that. Thank you for this slice of culture and a reminder that the simplest of things can hide their fascination well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you enjoyed this post, Leyla! It’s funny the things we “know” but never really wonder about or investigate to find out more. I think travel, by exposing us to new environments, foods, customs, etc. really helps us look at everyday items that we take for granted in different ways. As North Americans (and city dwellers) accustomed to buying our foods shrink-wrapped in supermarkets one of our biggest eye-openers has been seeing how food grows (coffee, coconuts, chocolate, rice) and watch cows and sheep graze in pastures. Pretty amazing!

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  • The first thing l thought of was my old Birkenstocks 🙂 . Funny how you never think of some things like cork for instance. I only ever do when they crumble trying to open the bottles. This is very informative and l can just picture you with your questions.. 😉 . I like the looks of those handbags too. 50% is super high, l would have assumed Spain. Good for them!

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    • You’re so right about not thinking about items that we use everyday and don’t think about until they malfunction! We’ve also had many pairs of much-appreciated Birkies over the years and have found some really attractive ones here in Lagos made almost completely out of cork. At some point, rather that wear one item at a time, we’ll have to don all of our cork ware (hats, shoes, wallets and handbag) and make a fashion statement! 🙂

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  • How interesting. I had no idea where cork came from or that Portugal produces 50% of the world’s total. It’s funny how you use things everyday, but never stop to think how they’re produced or where they come from. Fascinating post, and when I’m pinning to my cork board again, I shall be thinking of you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • We know what you mean,Jo about never thinking about everyday objects and what the story behind them might be or where they come from. And now we know a little bit more about both Portuguese economy and culture. So glad you found the subject of cork as interesting as we did! (And be careful with those pins! 🙂 )

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  • Guess I’m a nerd too because I’d be asking lots of questions too! Not sure why that German couple even signed up for the tour. Very interesting information and do nice that the trees aren’t just cut down and that’s the end of the tree. Had no idea Portugal produced 50% of the world’s cork. Yikes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, Jan, we wear the “nerd” badge with honor! Don’t you love storing away bits and pieces of interesting information? Hopefully it makes us more fascinating but we know that, as curious people, we’ll never be bored. And don’t you just wonder sometimes why some people even sign up for tours when they’re so obviously not interested? Give us someone with (irritating) enthusiasm anytime! 🙂

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  • We loved your post and learned far more than we would have ever thought to ask about the process. By the way, don’t ever stop asking questions. There are times when it’s great to be a tourist. Cheers, Tim & Anne

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ve never been called shy and always have lots of questions, Tim and Anne, both intelligent ones and the occasional blooper! Seems like so much of life, no matter what our age, is about learning and occasionally having a chance to pass on some of the lessons. And, luckily, there are plenty of new places where it’s great fun to be a tourist!

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  • An informative post! I almost bought a cork purse in Portugal this spring so now that I’ve learned all about how cork is harvested, I wish I had bought it! The trees themselves are beautiful too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re so glad you enjoyed this post Michelle. We agree that the handbags are gorgeous and just think what a conversation piece they could be. However, as consolation, just think if we bought souvenirs everywhere we went … there’d be no room for travel clothes! (And it’s also a good reason to make another visit to Portugal)

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  • Not sure if my last attempt to comment actually worked. Anyway, just wanted to say I really enjoyed your write up – I went to Novacortiça last year and still haven’t got around to writing about it. It was a fascinating experience. If you get the chance, go to the Costume Museum in São Bras de Alportel – they have a cork exhibition which gives a bit of background to the importance the industry had in the Algarve. No need to watch the video though – it’s of the cork factory!

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    • Your comment “took” and thanks, Julie for the extra effort! We actually spent the day in São Bras de Alportel, enjoyed a great traditional Portuguese lunch of fish and spent some time at the museum with its great collection of period costumes and additional information about cork and its influence in the Algarve. The area is beautiful and definitely worth another visit sometime!

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  • I remember visiting the corks trees in Portugal over 20 years ago. Good memories. Glad they are still there. 😎

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    • We are too Charles, as we had a great time learning about the national tree of Portugal. They’re an important source of pride to the Portuguese and contribute to Portugal’s economy too. Since existing trees are protected by the government and only skilled “tiradors” can harvest the bark, the last piece to ensuring their continued existence is to make sure that new ones are planted for “the grandchildren.”

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  • I found cork to be a problem in Portugal. Unable to take a cork screw in hand luggage on airline flights we tend to rely on screw cap bottles but we found these hard to find!

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  • Excellent details and pics! And so very thorough. Coincidentally it reminds me of a tiny post I did on those same cork trees back in February. My shortest ever post, but a 3 minute NPR video about how the trend towards plastic corks (ugh!) is endangering not only the cork trees of Portugal and the traditional wine cork industry as a whole (incl. jobs, etc.) but also endangering the animals and birds that inhabit those cork tree groves. Most fascinating, and underscores the interconnectivity of everything on the Planet. Hope you don’t mind if I post a link here to the 3 min. video as it’s quite fascinating and so directly related to your equally fascinating story here.

    http://www.travelnlass.com/2016/02/19/wine-corks-a-tricky/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Dyanne for this extremely interesting link and, if you take another look at our “factoids” you’ll notice that we went back and included this video by “The Engineer Guy” in our post. And, in fact, as lovers of trivia, we subscribed to his website. The photos are great too and make our post much for complete! 🙂

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  • Such fun to take time and continue to discover the ‘new’ place where you are living!

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  • While I like the convenience of ‘screw top’ wine bottles, I do love the relationship of a cork and a wine or bubbly bottle – seems more authentic somehow. And another friend who visited Portugal a few years back first got me paying attention to corks other uses when she started using a cork purse. Great post you two!

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    • Thanks Jackie. It was interesting to find out about all the different styles of bottle stoppers and how they are made from whole pieces of cork to agglomerated closures. We also love the whole ritual of opening up a bottle with a fancy cork opener. It makes the contents seem more “valuable” as well as more delicious!

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  • Well, being the purse junkie that I am, would love to see a cork handbag! Thanks for sharing yet another of your wonderful adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome Nancy. We have yet to buy a handbag (although Anita threatened to!) but I am now the proud owner of some very cool two-toned loafers and a nice, lightweight cork hat. We keep finding many ingenious and practical items made out of cork so it’s fun to look around. Let me know if you want something for me to bring to you when I come back for the 50th high school reunion next year. Dick

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  • Anita, I love this post. And it’s the best example of synchronicity (?) that I’ve experienced in a while, because literally, about 30 min ago Terri and I were talking about our last trip to Portugal (back in the Pleistocene) and I said to her that the only thing that I remember about the Algarve was the cork trees that we saw from our tiny fiat rental. I had no idea about the process, and thanks so much for the great photos and explanation. I know that I’ve pegged the Nerdometer, but I love this stuff. Time to open a bottle of wine. Salud!! ~James

    Liked by 1 person

    • Synchronicity and coincidence indeed – how funny! We both love trivia and filing away useful (as well as useless!) factoids in our heads to drag out from time to time is a favorite pastime – it’s fun to dazzle and trade info with fellow nerds. In fact, I checked out and subscribed to “The Straight Dope” based on a recommendation you made not too long ago. 🙂 And, if the Pleistocene epoch was the last time you were in Portugal, you need to include it in your future travels. Let us know when! Anita

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  • I’ll never open a bottle of wine without thinking of your adventure and this new info. Thanks

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  • I was just in the cork forest!

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    • The forests are beautiful aren’t they? We’ve seen large forests from bus windows, cork growing wild along hilly roadsides and also small private areas with just a few of the trees. We hope you enjoyed your trip to Portugal, Cindy! Your photos were amazing and we can’t wait to visit some of the places your pictured.

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  • Very interesting. Love the pics of cork oaks before and after. Pity you can’t share the smell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wish we could share the smell as it was aromatic and followed us throughout our tour – very pleasing! We were hoping the pictures would illustrate how the corks looked before and after the bark is harvested. When the bark is first stripped or “peeled” from a section of the tree the layer underneath is a mahogany shade that darkens as the bark grows back. We also found it interesting that the tree is never completely stripped as that would leave it very vulnerable to disease and pests.

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  • Hey Anita. Love the look of the couch but not the style. Do they make a more modern design?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps something more sleek with some inviting curves, Shelley? 🙂 Like so much of the traditional furniture we’ve seen in Portugal, this couch was a little low (remember the beds in the guest room from your trip to Portugal last summer?) but pretty comfortable and the cork upholstery itself was very soft and supple – much nicer than a slick leather. It might be kind of fun to have furniture that’s a conversation piece!

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  • It sounds fascinating. I would of been one of those nerd tourists. Can’t wait to see it in person. Thank you for a great story and great pictures.

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    • So glad you enjoyed this post Jeannie and we’re looking forward to acting as your personal tour guides. One of our favorite travel posts was writing about how tiles are made at the Ladrilleria Favilli a few streets away from your home in Granada and finding out about the cork trees and cork production reminded us how fun it is to learn about how everyday items are made. So many simple things that we take for granted have some interesting beginnings!

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  • I’ve always liked cork shoes as they are not only light in weight but I love the cushy feel they offer. Now I know more about where hey come from. Very educational and interesting post. The cork trees are beautiful and I enjoyed reading the harvesting information. You certainly fill in a lot of blanks!! Thanks for another great post.
    Suzi

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    • Thanks Suzi! I’ve had several pairs of shoes over the years that have incorporated cork into the footbeds and many of the shoes we’ve seen in Portugal also use the cork fabric in the shoe design as a substitute for leather – a true vegan product. The natural color of the cork is pretty but we’ve also seen it stamped in colorful patterns as well as dyed. Richard bought some great loafers a few months ago and I’ve been keeping my eye out for another pair of sandals. Like you, I like the cushy feel!

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  • I too never thought about where cork comes from. This is fascinating. I would have been asking lots of questions too. I’ve been on a cork floor and I’ve seen plenty of wine corks, but had no idea cork was also used to make furniture or purses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re glad you found this as interesting as us, Donna because we were really amazed when we walked into one of the shops and first saw some of the cork products displayed. There are many everyday items that we use and never really think about so learning about the cork trees, production and uses for this material has given us a different perspective on other items as well. I think we’ll be doing some “Googling” for quite a while!

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  • Isn’t evolution amazing? As I was reading I was thinking who discovered this amazing product of nature and how many other people it took to find other uses for it. Nerd on! I would have been the same way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ve both voiced the thought from time to time, “I wonder how they found that out?” or “How did they ever think of that?” I’m pretty sure that those people with a creative or inventive bent think differently from the majority of us but your’e right, it’s fascinating to think of the people who have a practical idea and then see how the idea changes, improves and evolves!

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