While working as a birdwatcher for Ashley one day, Jim spots Miss Harcourt. This happens when he’s watching a sandpiper, a bird from “Northern Asia or Scandanavia.” He’s “amazed” to think that he can set his eyes upon an animal that was “on the other side of the earth” only “weeks ago,” and wonders if the creature remembers all the places it’s seen “so many darknesses ago.” As he lifts his binoculars away, he momentarily sees a woman in a “sun-bonnet” standing before a tripod with a camera placed atop it. The camera is pointed in his direction, and Jim realizes that this woman is photographing the very same bird that he himself has been observing.
When Jim considers the sandpiper’s migratory journey, he tries to fathom the fact that this tiny creature has crossed countless boundaries. The sandpiper has flown all the way to Australia, crossing continents and country lines, although this is—of course—meaningless to the bird, which most likely only takes note of the slow passage of time (the succession of “darknesses”) and its current location. By thinking about how the bird must conceive of its travels, Jim shifts his perspective in an attempt to gain an alternate look at the world.
Later that day, Jim goes to a local bar for a drink and learns that the middle-aged woman he saw is named Miss Imogen Harcourt. Having found out where she lives, he pays her a visit in her run-down cottage. “Anyone home?” he asks. “Who is it?” replies a voice with a British accent. “Me,” he says. “Jim Saddler. I works for “Mr. Crowther.” Sounding as if it’s strangely faraway, Miss Harcourt’s voice returns, telling Jim to let himself in and that she’ll be with him in a moment. “I’m in the dark room,” she explains. Once inside, he analyzes her voice, thinking that it has the sound of a younger woman.
Jim’s first impulse when Miss Harcourt asks who’s at her door is to simply declare his presence by saying, “Me.” Although he goes on to clarify this by adding his name, this initial response is worth considering, since it indicates his tendency to use language to signify in the simplest way possible. Indeed, by saying “me,” he doesn’t overcomplicate anything. Of course, this isn’t effective when it comes to actual communication, but for a moment he simply relies upon the most straightforward way of classifying himself, a choice that speaks to his desire to catalog the world so that it is manageable and easy to understand.
When Miss Harcourt finally appears, Jim says, “I’ve come about that sandpiper. I seen you taking a picture of it.” He then explains that he’s Ashley’s “bird man,” saying, “I keep lists”—something Miss Harcourt says she already knows; she saw him the yesterday. Jim finds himself unused to Miss Harcourt’s straightforward manner of speaking, since he has found that older women normally aren’t so forthright. As they sit down to some tea, she offers him her story. She came to Australia from England six years ago, when her brother wanted to make a fortune as a gold-miner. Unfortunately, he failed and returned to England, but she decided to stay. Since then, she has been living in this cottage and earning a small supplemental income by sending her “nature photographs” to a London magazine.
Once again, Jim exhibits his penchant for simplicity, this time by describing his role in straightforward and unglamorous terms. “I keep lists,” he says, downplaying the fact that he works in Ashley’s “sanctuary.” Although this might seem bashful and overly modest, Miss Harcourt appears to be a like-minded person, somebody who likes to speak without airs or embellishments. Jim takes note of this, thinking that she’s blunter than he might have expected, but this doesn’t seem to jar him. In fact, the two seem well-suited, both because they share a certain way of communicating and because they each have an interest in birdlife and nature.
Miss Harcourt takes Jim into her darkroom, saying that she works “here and out there. The light, and then the dark.” When Jim looks at the photograph Miss Harcourt took of the sandpiper, he’s impressed by how vividly she has captured the bird, which stands in tight focus at the center of the portrait. Even though he knows that his own body should be visible in this picture, he’s surprised to see that his form is completely undetectable, out of focus and obscured by the grass and flowers: “To the unenlightened eye there was just the central image of the sandpiper with its head attentively cocked.”
When Miss Harcourt describes her work as taking place in “the light, and then the dark,” she reveals her sensitivity to the ways in which life is divided up into various sections. In this moment, she makes a distinction between the light and the dark, one that defines her work as a photographer. The attention she pays to the way things are separated also brings itself to bear on her photograph of the sandpiper. By blurring out Jim from the picture, she distinguishes the subject of the portrait—the sandpiper—from the foreground. However, she and Jim both know that he is, in fact, in the photograph. In this way, Malouf shows readers the power of framing and composition, suggesting that such things can significantly influence perspective.
Jim loves Miss Harcourt’s photograph of the sandpiper, finding it appropriate that his body has been obscured by composition’s focus. It is, after all, “the sandpiper’s picture.” He resolves to show this to Ashley, and from this point on, he, Miss Harcourt, and Ashley become “partners.” A week later, Jim tells her about the “sanctuary,” slightly embarrassed by the word’s serious connotations. In fact, he never says this word again, finding it unnecessary because both Miss Harcourt and Ashley understand what he’s doing and thus don’t need to label it in such lofty ways. Moving forward, the three of them simply talk about “the birds.”
Again, Jim displays his desire to keep things simple, preferring to speak about “the birds” rather than the “sanctuary.” For him—and for the friends he has just made—describing something and giving it a name is enough; there’s no reason to complicate things by assigning something an unnecessarily fancy term.