Deck the walls with ivy

Parthenocissus is being threatened at Harvard College, and none of us will stand for that, will we? As every Harvard man and woman knows, parthenocissus is botanist's Greek for ivy - Boston ivy, to be exact. For as long as the Oldest Grad can remember - and a lot longer than that too - ivy has been literally inseparable from Harvard's brick walls. But an expedition has set forth, as schoolboys used to say in their Caesar translations, to cut down the ivy that climbs Lowell House and Winthrop House; and this, as far as ivy-cutting goes, is crossing the Rubicon.

A university nowadays is like any other corporation in one respect. Policy debate comes from the cost accountants. These men with the fiscal pruning shears figure that Harvard spends $50,000 a year trimming the ivy on its walls. Furthermore, they whisper ghastly tales about the expensive damage the clinging vine does to brick and mortar.

Barbarians within the ivy-covered gates!

All Harvard, it turns out, is divided into at least two parts. About 100 students rallied before John Harvard's statue one May day to organize a ''Save the ivy'' movement. It was pointed out on this occasion that $50,000 hardly constitutes a budget-fracturing expense for a going concern with a $1.5 billion endowment. Evidence was introduced that ivy exercises an insulating effect, keeping out heat in the summer, keeping it in during the winter.

Other cost-effective arguments could have been raised. It might have been emphasized that the inevitable ''outside consultant'' was brought in to recommend the anti-ivy policy. Certainly you could clip a lot of ivy for the price an outside consultant charges to ''study'' the question and produce the obligatory report.

This is not even projecting the cost of future consultants who will surely have to be summoned to invent a new name for the Ivy League, once the ivy has been rooted out.

But for the most part, the pro-ivy protestors did not borrow their arguments from other cost accountants. They defended a classical tradition by classical means. Carol R. Johnson, a Cambridge landscape architect and a graduate of the Harvard School of Design, delivered in Latin her plea: ''Let not this ancient ivy be pulled down, never to be replaced. Let not the flicker of its glossy leaves tell us no longer the time of day, the time of year, and from whence bloweth the stormy gale.''

High style? Well, why not? There's a lot to be said in a world of glass-and-concrete for an organic, ever-changing facade that shines green in the spring and flames into red in the autumn. Even an engineering student must admire the feat of climbing 50 feet or so, straight up, on tiny suction-tendril feet.

It was Horace who coined the phrase, ''groves of academe,'' with the stress on groves. John Henry Newman once wrote a whole essay on the ''Site of a University,'' arguing for the compatibility of a ''seat of wisdom'' with ''the purest and fairest possessions of nature'' - i.e., a little greenery. He noted that, when the very first academy was founded in Athens, ''Cimon took in hand the wild wood, pruned and dressed it.'' Nothing is said about cutting anything down.

Every hotel and restaurant decorator in the country has discovered how green plants give an artificial environment a redeeming sense of life. Why has Harvard forgotten?

The soul of a city-sited student lives off the grass in a quadrangle, the view of a river (however polluted), the song of a bird nesting in a lecture hall gutter - and ivy.

If Harvard decides to get rid of its ivy - and the final decision has not yet been made - it will have a fight on its hands, and not just from pro-ivy ideologues. The plant is a survivor. The botanist Norman Taylor has summed up Boston ivy with admiration: It ''will thrive on any kind of soil and stand smoke , dust, wind, and the fumes of motors.''

In the stick-to-it-iveness of ivy - clinging for dear life to the college - what student at final exam time does not read his or her own metaphor?

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