Return to site

Fall Back in Time

Fall trees are beautiful, but their past can teach us too.


The official first day of Autumn was September 22nd. People all over celebrated by buying enormous quantities of pumpkins and wreaths and anything else orange. Here in south Texas, we kind of rolled our eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’ll feel like Fall in Texas around late November…” (It is really hard to get excited about this fall season when it’s still 95 degrees outside.)

BUT THEN on Monday of this week we magically (obviously it was meteorologically based and not magic) got a cold front and sure enough, our overnight lows are now in the 50s! Whoa! Let us all rejoice and jump up and down for this beautiful Fall weather! Unfortunately, it probably won’t last too long, but for now we shall drink our apple cider and pretend it’s going to be here forever.

Cooler weather is definitely one of the great things about this season, but so are all of the beautiful colors. This is why we go out and buy all the fake pumpkins and fake leaves for our mantle. We want to bring the beauty of the changing colors of the trees inside and keep it for as long as we can because those vibrant colors fade quickly, and the leaves fall to the ground.

broken image

So often we see these beautiful trees and marvel at the changes they make, but do we ever stop to think about all of the changes that single tree has been through in its life? When I was younger I learned that you could figure out how old a tree was by counting the number of rings it had.

broken image

What I didn’t know then was that you can learn SO MUCH MORE about a tree’s past by looking at its rings. This was brought to my attention a few months ago when a friend informed me of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Research. ( After just a short time looking into their work, I am hooked. It is very cool!

The technical term for this study of tree rings is Dendrochronology. Different characteristics of tree rings can tell scientists vast amounts of information from dating events, to environmental changes, and archaeological artifacts.

One project they are working on is attempting to date a devastating volcanic eruption in Thera, Greece (Present-day Santorini). This eruption took place in the 16th or 17th century BC and is one of the biggest ever witnessed by mankind. It is thought to have killed over 20,000 people. Unfortunately, the dating process has given mixed results, unable to pinpoint an exact date. Archaeologists have traditionally put it around 1500 B.C., but more recent radiocarbon dating argues for a date between 1627 and 1600 BC. That’s over a hundred years difference. A team of LTRR scientists are working with other scientists to narrow down the exact date. They are using tree rings to date astrophysical events which produced huge amounts of radiocarbon so as to more accurately use radiocarbon dating. That means these trees can help us know what was happening in space and on Earth over 3500 years ago. That is amazing.

As someone who is drastically affected by hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, I was very interested in their use of trees to help better understand hurricanes and how they develop. Documented hurricane records had only gone back 120 years, but with this new research, we now have record of hurricane activity over the past 500 YEARS! In order to gain these centuries of data, the scientists at LTRR collaborated with labs which studied shipwrecks in the gulf! So cool.

broken image

A log of shipwrecks for the last few centuries reveals that more shipwrecks happened during times with more hurricanes. The missing piece that gave us accurate dating of these events was tree-ring chronology from Big Pine Key at the south of Florida. In years when there were strong winds and high storm surges (extra salt), there would be smaller rings.

broken image

By combining the studies, pairing narrow rings with shipwrecks, they found several decades of fewer hurricanes corresponded with periods of reduced solar activity. This helps present-day meteorologists more accurately include the sun’s activity when predicting how active the tropics will be each year.

These amazing studies are only possible by looking into the past of these trees. The answers are right there in their past. Just like the tree, we too can find answers if we look to the past.

Almost all of today’s questions about Christianity have been asked before by people who devoted their entire life to the study of the scriptures and Church history. Here are some quick examples of often-asked questions with just a couple of examples of past theologians’ answers.

Is there even a God?

  • St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century wrote The Quinque viæ (Latin for "Five Ways") which are five logical arguments regarding the existence of God.
  • St. Paul wrote in the book of Romans, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)

Why do you honor Mary so much?

  • St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd century wrote, “[I]t was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” (Against Heresies, III.22.4, A.D. 180)
  • St. Augustine in the 4th century wrote, “Our Lord . . . was not averse to males, for he took the form of a male, nor to females, for of a female he was born. Besides, there is a great mystery here: that just as death comes to us through a woman, life is born to us through a woman; that the devil, defeated, would be tormented by each nature, feminine and masculine, as he had taken delight in the defection of both.” (Christian Combat 22.24, A.D. 396)

Why do Catholics believe that piece of bread is God?

  • The 6th chapter of the Gospel of John has the Bread of Life Discourse where Jesus repeatedly says that his flesh is the bread of life and that his followers must eat his flesh in order to live. (I wrote an entire blog on this last spring
  • An early church father, St. John Chrysostom (349-407AD) in Homily 47 on the Gospel of John teaches that Jesus' words in the Bread of Life Discourse are not an enigma or a parable, but to be taken literally.

These are just some of the BIG questions, and each one of them has so much more depth that people throughout Church history have explored. If you have questions about these or other Church teachings, go find what those brilliant minds had to say. Our past can teach us so much.

Obviously the first place to turn is to read what scripture says. Sometimes, though, the Bible may speak too vaguely, and we might still have questions. This is when we turn to early Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. I know we want to think for ourselves and come up with our own answers (both great things), but in order to come up with the best answers, we have to also look at what has already been done in the past.

Just as we can get so many answers about trees and our ecosystem by looking at what has happened to them in the past, we can also get so much help in answering our own questions when we look to the past. This is one of the great benefits of being a part of such an organized religion as the Catholic Church. Councils throughout the years have come together and made decisions on big questions. There are very clearly defined beliefs of the Catholic Church. The smart men and women from our past have saved us the trouble and have put in the work. Now, we as Catholics must take the time to listen to them, to read their writings. The answers to our questions are out there, if only we look to the past to find them.

Also, if you have any specific questions, feel free to email me at and I will do my best to get you an answer and work it into a future blog!