The Philodendron

We’ve had problems with the alarm system at our church for a very long time and recently we finally got it back in working order. It brought to mind an odd incident from the past. About five years ago I purchased a philodendron for my office at the Quartz Hill School of Theology, which is a ministry of Quartz Hill Community Church. It was supposed to replace the plant that had died the previous summer when I was gone for a couple of weeks and I forgot to tell anyone to water it. The sudden motivation to purchase the philodendron came when I learned I would be interviewed by a local reporter about my book, The Bible’s Most Fascinating People, which had just been released. I decided a plant in that pot of dry dirt would look better than a handful of scraggly brown stalks.

The plant was healthy the day of the interview, though I did note that one of the leaves had fallen off and was lying on my desk. It seemed a perfectly healthy leaf but things happen. I picked it up and tossed it away.

The interview was on Tuesday. Thursday night, when I came in to teach class, I noticed a whole limb had fallen from the plant and was lying in the trash can next to my desk. Again, I thought that was a bit odd. But on Wednesday we have youth group. My office is in the church, whose facilities the School of Theology makes use of. So, I thought perhaps one of the teenagers, for whatever reason, had perhaps knocked a branch off.

Saturday, when I taught Hebrew, I saw a few other leaves off but simply tried not to think about it. Monday night, when I taught class, there were an enormous number of leaves missing. At that point I became convinced that it was my youngest daughter, who, for reasons known only to her, had perhaps gone wild with the plant and plucked leaves off of it. I even saw a pair of needle nosed pliers on my desk, taken from a drawer, and thought for sure that was the implement of my poor plant’s dismemberment.

But when I went to church the next Sunday morning, the plant was now only a shadow of its former self: a couple of branches and a handful of leaves. But my daughter had not been there to do anything: she had thrown up that morning and had not come to church since she was sick. And yet here my poor plant was nearly destroyed. Perhaps it was those inconsiderate teens from the youth group. Why would they do that to my plant?

Sunday night, I returned for our small group study. When I went into my office, I discovered my plant was now entirely gone: just roots. Every last branch, every last leaf had been plucked from it. On top of that, the wireless access point that had been sitting next to the plant had been knocked over. Very curious.

I carried the empty pot into the foyer and showed the few people there my now non-existent plant. “Who would do something like this?” I wondered.

“It looks like something that an animal might do,” suggested Kathy, our pianist, poking at one of the nubs barely visible in the dirt. Look, you can see chew marks.”

I looked. She was right.

“The squirrel!” I announced.

People in the foyer stared at me, not quite as if they believed I had lost my mind, since they’d known me for years and my oddness was something they’d grown accustomed to. More it was a look of, well, confirmation—as in, “ah, once again he demonstrates for us just how peculiar he is.”

But then I explained, reminding them of the then recent past. We had, over a period of about a month, suffered from the alarm system in the church going off repeatedly for no apparent reason. I would receive a call from the alarm company, tell them to shut off the racket, and then I would drive over to the church to see what was wrong. Every time, I would find the building secure: all the doors closed, windows closed and intact, and no evidence that anything was out of the ordinary. This happened two or three times a week and we simply could not figure out what was wrong. The alarm company had been unable to find anything amiss with the system.

Then, one Saturday afternoon when I arrived to teach a Hebrew class, I walked back to the library to set up the room for the students, and just as I reached the door, I saw two shiny black eyes staring at me from the middle of the carpet: they belonged to a squirrel. Startled, it stared at me, then flicked its tail, and scurried toward one of the book shelves. Recovering from my surprise, I walked into the room, at which point the beast scurried past me and darted down the hallway. I turned to follow, but when I looked down the hall it was nowhere to be seen.

So, the mystery of the random alarms was solved. And since we were unable to figure out how it was getting into the building, we began, after that point, to always set the alarm in such a way that the interior motion sensors were shut off. My discovery of a squirrel in the building had also explained a puzzling incident over the summer when we came into the church and found biscuits scattered all over the kitchen floor: someone had left a bag of them on the counter-top one Sunday and we found the mess when we arrived for Wednesday Prayer Meeting. Now it seemed probable that the squirrel was behind that dishevelment.

Remembering the squirrel had solved the new mystery of my slowly vanishing plant: apparently the bushy-tailed creature finds philodendrons tasty. Though given the number of leaves and branches that were just scattered about rather than consumed, perhaps the squirrel merely has a personal grudge against them.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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