Looking Up: A Birder’s Guide to Hope Through Grief – Courtney Ellis

Looking Up: A Birder's Guide to Hope Through Grief by Courtney Ellis, Kay Warren
Published by IVP on April 9, 2024
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life
Buy on Amazon

"Look at the birds!"

Through the painful days of the pandemic stuck in her home, Courtney Ellis found herself looking down in despair. Soon after, her beloved grandfather died unexpectedly.

It was around this same time that Ellis took up watching birds. "Took up" might not be exactly right―as she puts it, "the switch flipped," and she’s been borderline obsessed with birds ever since.

Looking Up is a meditation on birding as a practice of hope. Weaving together stories from her own life, including the death of her grandfather, with reflections on birds of many kinds, Ellis invites us to open our eyes to the goodness of God both in the natural world and in our own lives. By "looking up" to the birds, Ellis found the beauty and wonder of these creatures calling her out of her darkness into the light and hope of God's promises.

This unique memoir combines the author’s love of birding with her reflections on grief and loss, and even though it sounds like an incredibly niche book, it deals with universal topics in a way that can appeal to a broad audience. During the pandemic, Courtney Ellis began noticing the birds that had always been in her family’s backyard, and she began birding as a way to connect with nature and God during such a difficult time. This became a full-blown obsession, and she shares her passion and enthusiasm for birds throughout this book without overdoing it for non-birders. Each chapter covers a different bird variety, and she intersperses nonfiction information about this bird with her personal narratives, drawing out metaphorical connections between that bird and the human experience.

The book is somewhat non-linear, moving back and forth between birds and different chapters of Ellis’s life. The primary focus is her grief over losing her grandfather during the pandemic, and she writes about her experience traveling home to say goodbye and dealing with this loss. She also includes stories from her childhood and young adult years, and she shares narratives and life lessons from her experiences as a pastor, particularly since her profession involves so much proximity to death and the dying. Ellis draws out powerful spiritual truths in every chapter, and writes in a way that is heartfelt and honest, exploring hard things in a disarming way.

Looking Up: A Birder’s Guide to Hope Through Grief is powerful and moving, and I deeply enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, since my interest in birds is fairly middling, but I found the bird sections fascinating. Also, even though I sometimes felt confused about where we were in the timeline, since Ellis would often weave in and out of stories from different stages of her life, I really appreciated the heartfelt stories she shared. Her writing really resonated with me, and even with the occasional cases where I disagreed with some of her thoughts, I enjoyed her beautiful reflections on so many different ideas, experiences, and struggles. I don’t reread books as often as I used to, since I always have so many new things to read, but this is something that I expect to return to in the future, and I definitely recommend it.