For more than four decades, in Europe, Asia and North America, John Holland has looked for birds.
A good many of the 540 species Holland has observed, he's spotted just blocks from his East 92nd Street home.
Central Park is among the world's best birding spots, an oasis along the Atlantic Flyway, the migration route that birds have followed for millennia. This year, in the midst of a great urban expanse, more than 200 species will feed, breed and nest within what Holland calls “a mecca for birds.”
But his most fecund birding season was the roughly 12 months he spent inside, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. Beginning in January 2015, Holland dutifully carried binoculars, a magnifying glass, notebook and other appurtenances particular to birders into The Met. There, he peered back into time, looking for feathered vertebrates among the museum's Breugels and Bosches, its Goyas and Gauguins, its vases, carvings and tapestries.
“I couldn't tell you how many birds there are in The Metropolitan Museum,” he says during a recent visit to the museum. “There are always more birds. It goes on and on and on.”
On a recent morning, Holland, a short, thin, spirited man with a ready smile and an easy gait, sauntered through a few of the museum's ground-floor galleries. He stopped first at “Marble Seated Harp Player,” a figurine from about 2800–2700 B.C.
When he points out a duck's bill motif pattern on the instrument's neck, it's quickly evident that Holland, 83, has a pliable, discerning eye. The bill's jut is organic, of the piece. Unless, perhaps, you are looking for it.
But if Holland is circumspect about the duck bill — “we think it is; we're making it into one” — he also appeals to evidence: “Ducks existed, ducks were heard,” he says of the Cycladic period, when the work was carved. And, of course, about the harp player and the duck's call: “There's some association with music.”
Turning away from the glass-enclosed display, he says, “It could be a swan.”
In a nearby gallery, he stops before a black terracotta plate. Dating from about 500 B.C. it depicts a young man in a toga and headdress astride a rooster — or, as Holland says, “he's riding on a cock.”
To Holland, the subject matter, whatever its larger meaning, is nearly unambiguous. In the latest edition of the Linnaean Newsletter, the publication of a “strongly bird oriented” natural history group, he describes the painting as “this erotic scene.”
“It's not unlikely my conjecture is accurate,” he says.
Holland has so far noted, without counting mythical beasts, 87 species of birds within The Met's Fifth Avenue collection, a good portion of them documented in the newsletter. Each work of art in which he has spotted a bird has an entry in “Metropolitan Birds (Part 1).” Most are simple descriptions, some no more than the work's title or what it denotes. “Facsimile Painting of Egyptian Geese for the Tomb of Neffermaat and Itet,” for a work by Charles Wilkinson dating from 1920-21, is one. “Cockatoo,” for a mid-18th century German hard-paste porcelain bird, is another.
Other entries are lengthier and erudite, accompanied by literary citations Holland has culled from, among others, Wallace Stevens, Keats, Shakespeare, even the famously abstruse German Enlightenment philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Born in England, Holland spent his formative years in Ireland, returning to England at 14, where he completed his schooling.
He served two years in the British Army in the early 1950s, posted in Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan and in the Suez Canal Zone. To his chagrin, Holland didn't take up birding until his early 40s, a development he calls “stupid.”
“Just imagine, I was in the desert. I saw some good birds,” he said.
It wasn't until he came to New York in the late 1950s that he became a birder, mostly by visits to Central Park. It remains a passion, he said. “It became a great interest, and extreme interest,” he said. “It takes you out in wonderful places.”
He also met his wife, Elizabeth, now retired as an associate managing editor at the Modern Language Association, here. The two have been married since 1962. She is an occasional birder.
AN INNATE PURSUIT
Holland has a few collaborators, including Shale Brownstein, whom Holland credits with the idea of birding the museum. “He inspired it by taking us on a tour” and pointing out birds within the collections, Holland said. And Holland said Deborah Jaffe, who has led birding tours of the museum, did a masterful job in compiling depictions of birds in the museum's Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, the museum's collection of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.
Another is Marie Winn, the journalist and author, who is a friend and fellow birder.
“It's just an enrichment kind of thing. And it's fun, it's fascinating,” she says of her excursions with Holland.
Winn, who lives in the West 90s near Riverside Park, likes to bird by ear, listening for and identifying birds by their calls. Winn, who wrote “Red-Tails in Love” and “Central Park After Dark,” suggests that the quest to identify is something of an innate pursuit, but all the more interesting when enjoyed for its own sake.
“It's a sort of a part of human nature, really. Not everybody feels it but a big bunch of people do and birders are among them,” she says. “So here is a little narrower example of it.”
But being also an art lover, she said the pleasure of looking at The Met's collection is increased when perusing it for birds. “It's always fun to have a sort of narrow goal if you go to a museum,” she says. “At the same time you are focusing your own interests.”
Holland is, plainly, a polymath. A retired editor of college textbooks, he has an affinity for early Italian Renaissance painting, its allusions and, given his dense thicket of a project, its occasional elusiveness.
“Just as in the field, you see birds you don't recognize,” he says. “I would welcome people who make corrections, because I can't always be right. In New York we have some of the world's best birders.”
Holland, it turns out, has company. Dale Tucker, a publications editor at the museum and a self-described “casual birder,” started “birding” in the museum after hearing about a similar effort discussed at Audubon New York.
Tucker did not go to Holland's lengths to, for instance, catalogue his findings, but he pitched the idea of birding The Met to colleagues who were developing “Connections,” the museum's audio blog feature, in which staff members talk about the art by way of a personal passion or interest.
Tucker framed his talk around what he called “teaching moments.”
“It wasn't about the species per se, it was about the practice of birding,” he says. “It's a great idea. Anybody can do it.”
Like Winn, he suggested that honing in on a particular interest or theme can increase the appreciation of the art. “It's a just different access to art that cuts all genres, all cultures, all time periods,” he says in concluding his blog piece.
CHALLENGES On the museum's second floor, in a gallery of 15th century works from Venice and northern Italy, Holland stops before Carpaccio's “The Meditation on the Passion,” painted about 1490.
Christ's dead body, dressed only in a loincloth, sits on an ornate but damaged stone block. A crown of thorns is at his feet. Saint Jerome is to Christ's right, Job to his left. Both are pensive figures within a rocky outpost. Within a more idyllic scene in the far background, turbaned figures, some on horseback, go about their day.
Above the head of Christ, a bird, which Holland identifies as possibly a crag martin, a type of swallow, soars into blue sky, symbolic of the resurrection. On the ground, to Christ's left, sits a red parrot.
Holland, though, has identified a third bird. It takes effort to finally discern what he calls “an overlarge Goldfinch” that is nearly concealed by the dark, rocky background. The goldfinch, near ubiquitous in Renaissance painting, symbolizes, by turns, the soul, resurrection and even death. Legend has it, Holland says, that the bird's red face came about after it plucked a thorn from Jesus' crown and was splashed with blood.
“It helps to know these traditions,” he says. “There's so much history involved in all this.”
This specimen, too, has a place in Holland's menagerie.
“It took some finding,” he says. “It's nice to be challenged like that.”
If Holland has so far identified more than five dozen species in the collection, he's found them among hundreds if not thousands of works of art.
With the Fifth Avenue Met catalogued, Holland is now combing through the Cloisters. For a few weeks he's been looking at the Unicorn Tapestries, a series of seven hangings of wool and silk crafted about 1500 in what is now Belgium.
“It's a big job. It's much smaller, but there's so much to see,” Holland says of the Cloisters. “You just keep looking and looking and looking and hope you find something.”