Finding your angle of repose

angle of repose
Origin: 1875-80
Geology: the maximum slope, measured in degrees from the horizontal, at which loose solid material will remain in place without sliding.

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (1971)

Yet do you remember the letters you used to get from isolated miners and geologists and surveyors who had come across a copy of Century or Atlantic and seen their lives there, and wrote to ask how a lady of obvious refinement knew so much about drifts, stopes, tipples, pumps, ores, assays, mining law, claim jumpers, underground surveying, and other matters? Remember the one who wanted to know where you learned to handle so casually a technical term like “angle of repose”?

I suppose you replied, “By living with an engineer.” But you were too alert to the figurative possibilities of words not to see the phrase as descriptive of human as well as detrital rest. As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself, and I don’t mean the rigid angle at which I rest in this chair. I wonder if you ever reached it. There was a time up there in Idaho when everything was wrong; your husband’s career, your marriage, your sense of yourself, your confidence, all came unglued together. Did you ever come down out of that into some restful 30˚ angle and live happily ever after? When you died at ninety-one, the New York Times obituary spoke of you as a Western woman, a Western writer and artist. Would you have accepted the label? Or did you cling forever to the sentiment you wrote to Augusta Hudson from the bottom of failure in Boise Canyon – that not even Henry James’ expatriates were so exiled as you? We shared this house all the years of my childhood, and a good many summers afterward. Was the quiet I always felt in you really repose? I wish I thought so. It is one of the questions I want the papers to answer.


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