When Ashley has visitors, Jim takes them on tours of the property. Driving them around in a small boat, he points out the birds they pass or that fly overhead. As he whispers these names, Ashley feels as if he makes the birds seem “wrapped in mystery” yet also clarifies them. For Ashley, these outings recall many afternoons spent on the water in England, but they also reach back farther than that, back to “some pre-classical, pre-historic, primaeval and haunted world […] in which the birds Jim” identifies become “extravagantly disguised spirits of another order of existence.” Riding around like this with his future wife and his various friends, Ashley revels in the birds’ gracefulness. And when Jim identifies these creatures, his slightly awkward airs drop away, and he assumes a capable, poetic nature.
For Ashley, learning about the birds that live on his property evokes an awareness of the passage of time. These creatures, he knows, have been on the earth for thousands of years. They are “pre-historic” and “primaeval.” When Malouf suggests that Ashley thinks of the birds as coming from a “haunted world,” he means that the young man senses a form of mystery in the animals because they represent a time about which he knows very little. Indeed, these beings are “wrapped in mystery.” At the same time, though, Jim helps make this “mystery” seem a bit more approachable, giving Ashley the linguistic tools he needs to take an interest in the animals surrounding him.
On trips through the swamps with Ashley’s guests, Jim listens to the visitors talk about Europe and decides that it “must be a mad place.” What’s more, he hears that there is going to be a war. For now, though, he and Ashley focus on the present, concentrating on having a quiet lunch while the European guests talk amongst themselves. When Ashley does talk, he goes on discursive rants that are hard to understand. Still, though, Jim knows that Ashley is only trying to express “something essential to himself,” and so he feels at ease with him both in silence and when Ashley rambles.
Throughout these first chapters, Malouf addresses the onset of World War I in subtle, glancing ways. At this point, Jim has only thought about the war fleetingly way, but readers can feel its presence begin to rush into the novel’s otherwise tranquil plot. Jim, it seems, is a simple young man who—although he has a strong connection to his immediate environment—has never ventured out into the larger world. Instead of focusing on understanding that which lies beyond the confines of this swampland, he pays careful attention to smaller matters, like the coming and goings of birds or, as is the case in this moment, the minute interpersonal dynamics between him and Ashley.