The Restorative Force of Birding

September 11, 2023

A review by Harry Armistead

Out of the Lyme Light and into the Sunlight: Birding as Therapy for the Chronically Ill, by Robert C. Bell

Hancock House Publishers, 2022

192 pages, paperback

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15270

Robert Bell spent 35 years as a successful mineral exploration geologist and as such traveled widely. Eventually Lyme disease made life so challenging that he had to, with much reluctance, retire early.

Unsparingly and intensely personal, Out of the Lyme Light and into the Sunlight: Birding as Therapy for the Chronically Ill is a dramatic account of Bell’s chronic Lyme disease and how this triggered his interest in birding. Here is a worthy addition to the rapidly growing culture and literature on the beneficial effects of exposure to nature, joining pioneering books like Ornitherapy: For Your Mind, Body, and Soul by Holly Merker, Richard Crossley, and Sophie Crossley.

It took years for Bell to get an accurate diagnosis that his severe medical problems were caused by Lyme disease. His own words accurately emphasize the source of many of the problems he faced after contracting Lyme: “I have also tried to stress how frustrating it is to deal with the dismissive attitude toward Lyme disease, particularly chronic Lyme, that is prevalent throughout our conventional medical system.” 

Trouble walking, lack of stamina, uncharacteristic emotional instability, and several other symptoms made his life a living hell. But adept with technology and endowed with abundant curiosity, within only a few years after his Lyme disease onset with its severe challenges, he became an accomplished birder, giving talks, writing articles, networking with other birders, traveling for birding, and securing hundreds of quality photographs.

Out of the Lyme Light and into the Sunlight has 51 black and white photographs, almost all which were taken by Bell, of many bird species including adult male warblers in breeding plumage, and several maps. It has an Ontario orientation. Bell found that just being outdoors and birding relieved him of much of the pain and afflictions of the disease.

An appendix has an extensive listing of many helpful sources, but with the limitation of incomplete citations. For example, Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness is listed, but there is no indication that it was published in 2019 by Unbound. References list many URLs and websites, sometimes with as many as 110 characters, some of which may be ephemeral or unreachable via such platforms as Google. There are over 130 URLs plus book and magazine articles referenced.

Some sections may not be of as much interest to birders as advanced as many ABA members are. But part of the charm of the book is that it is all over the ballpark with chapters such as books on mineral exploration, bird expressions (“as the crow flies”), cats, how to begin birding, adjusting to retirement, and more. The binding of the book is stiff, and it won’t stay open without a weight or the reader’s hand. 

Bell is self-effacing yet accomplished and adaptable. Lyme disease should be of concern to all of us. One of the staff of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge died from Lyme. One May afternoon after I’d walked down a weedy Tilghman Island road in Maryland, I stopped counting after removing 100 ticks from my pants only. Hard to diagnose, hard to treat, and variable in its effects, this is a complex medical issue. One of Bell’s daily regimens occupies 45 lines of text and almost as many drugs. 

This is an admirable book with quotations such as, “Birds enthrall me to the point that my mind forgets that it is connected to an aching body, and I believe that this level of focused engagement with the natural world, birding or otherwise, can do the same for others with chronic pain as well.” The great beauty of Bell’s book is that it will surely help others find healing through birding.


A birder since 1949, Henry T. (“Harry”) Armistead is a retired Philadelphia librarian. He has organized 131 migration counts at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland, and compiled the Christmas Bird Count in Cape Charles, Virginia, for 48 years. Harry’s reports in the 21st century to local birding listservs comprise approximately 1.1 million words.