Ashley is a serious and inquisitive man, even if he is often inarticulate. Interested in “social questions,” he believes that “in the coming years there [will] be much to be done, stands to be taken, forces to be resisted, changes to be made and come to terms with.” What excites him most is the idea of change, which is why he’s so interested in “the air.” Although he himself doesn’t fly, his friend Bert has a biplane, and Ashley is happy to watch as Bert whips through the sky. Ashley has been in England for a number of years, but he discovers that returning to Australia isn’t as strange as he anticipated. In fact, the openness of the land feels familiar, though he doesn’t know much about his actual property. As such, he sets out to explore the grounds.
Ashley Crowther is the kind of person who loves life and all of the possibilities that come along with change. For him, the prospect of transformation is less daunting than it is exhilarating, though he does seem aware of the fact that the changes currently taking place in Europe will lead to violence, since “stands” will need to “be taken” (this is the novel’s first indication of how World War I looms in its characters’ consciousness). Otherwise, Ashley appreciates the fact that nothing in life stays the same, as evidenced by the pleasure he takes in aviation, a brand new frontier.
Ashley likes the landscape that surrounds him, finding pleasure in its “mixture of powdery blues and greens, its ragged edges, its sprawl, the sense it [gives] of being unfinished and of offering no prospect of being finished.” These features make him think of “a time in which nature might be left to go its own way and still yield up what it [has] to yield.” Relishing the place, he explores the land and acquaints himself with the people his father and grandfather—the last two owners—hired to maintain the grounds. This takes him two months. On the weekends, he entertains guests from Europe, who walk leisurely “on the verandah in the early morning,” listen to Ashley play music on an upright piano, and watch Bert “wobble” in his biplane in the sky.
By characterizing Ashley’s property as an “unfinished” place with “ragged edges,” Malouf emphasizes the idea that legal boundaries are rarely tangible. Rather, the demarcations at play in the world are hazy and imprecise, as is the case with this Australian swampland with its “mixture of powdery blues and greens” and its sprawling nature.
Ashley’s desire to acquaint himself with his property is what initially leads him to Jim. While riding through the swamp, he comes upon the young man lying in the grass with binoculars pressed to his face. Jim stands but doesn’t apologize, and although this could be offensive, Ashley is more intrigued than taken aback. Jim tells him that he was watching a Dollar bird, before explaining the bird’s origins. Although these facts might seem unnecessary, Ashley finds himself drawn in by Jim’s knowledge—which make both the animal and the island it comes from sound “extraordinary” and “romantic.”
Jim’s ability to identify the Dollar bird moves Ashley because it helps him feel as if the world around him—which is otherwise so “ragged” and undefined—is tangible. By giving Ashley the name of this bird, Jim effectively brings it to life while simultaneously inviting Ashley to join him in his admiration of this beautiful creature. As such, their friendship develops with a sense of shared interest in the surrounding environment.
Ashley dismounts his horse and Jim hands him the binoculars, pointing out the Dollar bird. “I can see it!” Ashley says, and the two men smile at each other. They then smoke together in an “easy silence” until Ashley asks Jim how frequently he comes here to watch the birds. Jim tells him that he does this on a regular basis, and Ashley follows his eyes and realizes that Jim is able to see the land with a “clearer focus” than he is. Jim, he thinks, might be able to help him see the many details of the world around him, and suddenly he is “intensely aware” of “how much life there might be in any square yard” of this area. However, he knows that even if he trained his own eye to pick out these details, “he would have no name for” them.
In this moment, Ashley realizes the importance of finding language to name something in the natural world. Without the ability to identify a bird, seeing it is less meaningful. This is why he needs Jim: the young man will help him access the surrounding natural world, giving him words that will impose a sense of order upon that which might otherwise remain inscrutable.
Ashley asks Jim if he would like to work for him “on a proper basis,” making lists of birds and turning “this into an observing place, a sanctuary.” Explaining that he would pay Jim to do this, he waits for the young man’s reply. After a moment, Jim says, “It sounds alright,” and the two men shake hands.
Jim and Ashley’s friendship takes form in accordance with their mutual interests. Jim, for his part, wants to spend time birdwatching in the wilderness, but until now there has never been any kind of financial incentive to do so. Ashley has the means to fund this passion, which he suddenly realizes he shares. As such, the two young men form a bond from which they can both benefit, suddenly realizing that they share a worldview about the importance of documenting—and, thus, putting language to—the birdlife in this “sanctuary.”