Jim realizes he’s been living, until now, “in a state of dangerous innocence.” At the same time, though, he did experience violence in his previous life—he just “ had believed it to be extraordinary.” Once, when Jim was fifteen, he saw his younger brother fall into the blades of a grain harvester. When he ran home, he was unable to describe what had happened. Instead, the experience sank down into all that was “unspoken” between him and his family.
Before the war, Jim thinks violence is “extraordinary.” This means he believes that, although violence and horror can influence a person’s life, they are rare and anomalous. However, his experience witnessing his brother’s death has in some ways prepared him for the unspeakable atrocities of war. Some things, he knows, simply can’t be expressed with words.
Watching his brother die isn’t the only form of violence Jim has witnessed outside of the war. Once, when he was birdwatching, he found a kestrel whose leg somebody forced through the rusty tin of a sardine can. Pitying the bird, he freed it even as it slashed at his hands. Once he got the metal off the bird’s foot, the kestrel was hardly able to do anything but “flop about in the grass.” He reflects on the bird’s flopping about now, wondering how anything can “stand against” all the violence in life. He used to think that “a keen eye for the difference, minute but actual, between two species of wren” might help him “stand against” the horrible things in life, but he no longer believes this.
It becomes clear in this moment that Jim has lost his ability to see the good in life. Having seen so much death, he understands that violence isn’t “extraordinary” and that the things he used to think were rare occurrences of bad fortune are actually part of the nature of life itself. Whereas he used to believe that using language to name birds—thus calling forth a thing of beauty—might help him see past life’s horror, he has now lost faith in the power of language to counterbalance sorrow and misery.
Feeling the “annihilating” sorrow of life, Jim walks into an area that has been “utterly blasted,” the land made into a “vast rag and bone shop.” Looking for firewood, he finds an old man digging in these desolate woods with a hoe. Jim thinks the man must be digging a grave, but then he sees that the man’s actually planting a garden. For a moment, he is reminded of Miss Harcourt, as something about “the old man’s movements” seems to reflect a “refusal to accept the limiting nature of conditions, that vividly recalled her.” The thought of his friend makes Jim briefly feel better. In the weeks to come, he wonders what the man planted, but he can’t check because “he doesn’t even know where it was, since they never saw a map.” After this experience, Jim takes pleasure in watching birds again.
Unlike Jim, who has recently given himself over to a pessimistic worldview, the old man planting this garden refuses to “accept the limiting nature of conditions.” In other words, he sees death all around him but still strives to make the world a better place, working to bring life into even the most dismal circumstances. Seeing this reignites Jim’s passion for beauty. What’s more, it’s worth noting that Jim doesn’t even know where this transformative experience takes place, yet another indication from Malouf that some boundaries simply aren’t as important as the lives that play out within them.