Stanford through a nature lover’s eyes

Campus resident Ingeborg Ratner has turned her lifelong passion for the outdoors into a self-published book called “Nature Walks at Stanford.”

When Ingeborg Ratner walks around campus she doesn’t see looming Hoover Tower or the red-tiled roofs around the Quad. She sees the feather palms and graceful swallows that have made the university a park and bird sanctuary for nature lovers.

A campus resident since 1951, Ratner has turned her lifelong passion for the outdoors into a self-published book called “Nature Walks at Stanford.”

“There’s a magic to plants,” says Ratner, who walks four miles a day with her husband, Leonard, a Stanford professor emeritus of music. “[Plants] cast shadows and soften the outlines of buildings. They enhance the architecture.”

When she first arrived, Ratner recalls, the campus was an arid and dusty place. But that changed in the 1960s as the university grew rapidly. Ratner credits groundskeeper Herb Fong with turning the campus into a lush arboretum during the last two decades. Fong, she says, continued the tradition established by Leland Stanford Sr., who introduced trees from as far away as Australia as part of a vision to bring together “all the trees and woody plants of the world that may be expected to grow … under the climatic and other conditions of the locality.”

In recent years, Ratner, a retired kindergarten teacher, had tried to capture her surroundings by painting the birds and trees on campus. One day, by chance, she showed drawings of 52 birds to arborist Karen Stidd. Ratner says that Stidd commented, “But that’s nothing, dear, we have thousands of birds.” When the artist asked how she should find them, Stidd replied, “Just walk.”

With Stidd’s support and collaboration, Ratner spent the next three years recording the flora and fauna on campus. “She’s an avid bird lover,” Stidd says. “Her pictures of birds are beautiful and her trees are correct botanically. I helped her identify the trees so that the book is 99 percent correct.”

The walks in Ratner’s book are organized geographically and are accompanied by maps, black-and-white illustrations and descriptions intended for the lay person

Starting in White Plaza and taking visitors through the Quad to Hoover Tower, Ratner continues through the redwoods and oaks found in the “three plazas” area and describes the resident and migratory birds along Lomita Mall. The century-old trees sheltering the secluded Stanford family’s mausoleum hold traditional symbolic meanings in different cultures, Ratner writes. Deodar cedars, for example, were called “Trees of God” by Hindus. Memorial Marsh and Lagunita are also included in the walks as traditional birding sites.

“I am passionately interested in nature,” Ratner says. “There is no such thing as an ugly flower, a menacing shrub or an angry tree.”

“Nature Walks at Stanford” by Ingeborg Ratner (92 pgs) is available for $10.95 at the Stanford Bookstore locations on campus and in Palo Alto.