Jim Saddler eyes a biplane as it loops lazily above the Australian swampland in which he spends his days. There is a “vast population of waterbirds” in this area, as well as a number of hawks and kestrels and other swooping creatures. Jim—an avid birdwatcher—watches the biplane all morning, feeling as if it is “a new presence,” one that he resents because of “its bulk” and “the lack of purpose in its appearance and disappearance at the tree line.” He dislikes that there’s no discernable “pattern” in its flight path. Worse, the “noise” of its engine feels to him like a “new” “disturbance.”
Jim’s dislike of the biplane cues readers into his deep appreciation for nature and, above all, the birds that fly overhead. It also indicates that Fly Away Peter is set during a time of growth and change, since it’s clear that Jim is unused to the very idea of an airplane, causing him to see it as nothing more than a mere “disturbance.” Instead of viewing this biplane as an exciting new advancement, he is weary of its strange, noisy, and lumbering presence.
Jim knows this swampland well. He even has a “map” of it “in his head,” as if he has seen it from both the ground level and from above, and he moves “always on these two levels, through these two worlds.” Jim knows that every portion of this landscape—every “section”—has its own kinds of wildlife, and he pictures “the territorial borders” of each species laid out clearly. The birds, he understands, are “free to cross” these borders, but they don’t. Instead, they stay “within strict limits” until it’s time to completely leave, at which point they fly to the far reaches of China and Europe.
Malouf establishes the novel’s interest in boundaries and perspective early on by giving Jim an acute awareness of the ways in which things are separated. Not only does Jim make a distinction between the land and the sky, he’s also cognizant of the ways in which the earth itself is divided into different “sections,” each of which belongs to a different species of bird. With this sensitivity to the idea of demarcation, Jim is able to jump back and forth between multiple perspectives, as if he can view his own life through alternate lenses—or even imagine what it might be like to be a bird.
The swampland belongs to a young man named Ashley Crowther, who has recently returned from many years of schooling in England. Having come back to take over his father’s property, he has hired Jim to catalog the birds that live in the swampland, wanting to know what creatures fly in and out of the area. As for himself, Ashley enjoys entertaining guests in the large country house on the weekends, and he lets his friend fly the biplane out of the paddock on his land.
Considering that Ashley Crowther has been away for so long before inheriting this large piece of land, one might think that he wouldn’t fully appreciate the abundance of nature on his own property. However, Ashley makes it clear right away that he respects the birds that consider his land their home. He shows this respect by hiring Jim, thereby suggesting that he admires the young man’s desire to identify these otherwise nameless creatures.
When Jim had started working for Ashley, his father was skeptical. A defeated, pessimistic man, his father believes Jim is destined for a “flat” life, claiming that this sort of existence is “inevitable” for “the likes of” people like him. Jim, for his part, has always resented that his father has simply accepted “defeat.” Nonetheless, he never challenges his father, knowing that the old man will become violent and bitter. This isn’t because Jim is afraid of his father’s violence, but because he’s afraid that the man’s “savagery” will “infect” him, since it is “of a kind that [can] blast the world.”
Jim’s fear of his father is worth examining. He isn’t afraid of the old man’s temper or physical stature, but of what he thinks his father might bring out in him. In other words, he understands that violent temperaments and pessimistic worldviews are contagious, knowing that they can “infect” people and even lay waste to “the world” at large. Considering that Fly Away Peter takes place during and leading up to World War I, Jim’s desire to avoid this kind of personal darkness foreshadows the sweeping, contagious nature of the world-wide darkness soon to come.
Despite his father’s skepticism, Jim had accepted Ashley’s job offer. He feels a kinship with Ashley despite their disparate backgrounds, because Ashley has “a quiet respect for things” that Jim also respects. Of course, this mutual understanding of the world remains unspoken. Even if Ashley were to try to voice his feelings, he would fail because he is, on the whole, given to rather “incoherent” ramblings. Still, Jim knows his new friend believes, as Jim believes, that the natural world surrounding them belongs “inviolably to the birds.” The fact that Ashley technically owns this property is superfluous, and both men understand this.
Jim and Ashley’s friendship develops according to their mutual worldviews. Although Ashley often goes on long, “incoherent” rants, he understands the power of silence and seemingly intuits that this is important to Jim. Perhaps more importantly, both men see human-made boundaries as arbitrary. Legal ownership, they believe, is secondary to the kind of ownership that emerges in the animal kingdom, where birds lay claim to stretches of land simply by inhabiting them.
Not only does Ashley understand that his own land truly belongs to the birds, he also senses that Jim himself has certain “rights” over the area. These rights have to do with his “knowledge of every blade of grass and drop of water in the swamp, of every bird’s foot.” What’s more, Jim has “a vision of the place and the power to give that vision breath.” Jim also has the ability to name the birds that swoop by, and this is what Ashley covets most of all.
Ashley’s respect for Jim’s ability to name the birds on his property suggests that he wants to find a way to relate to his surrounding environment. This is unsurprising, considering that he has been gone for a long time and thus knows very little about where he now lives. To remedy this, he wants to learn the names of the creatures around him, thereby making otherwise mysterious beings tangible and identifiable. This, Malouf suggests, is exactly what language can give a person.