angle of repose

Nearly self-explanatory, the oxymoronic-seeming term angle of repose designates the maximum angle at which a slope of loose material (such as soil or sand) remains stable. It is the point at which gravity challenges friction, the tense moment before one succumbs to the other. Particulate solids, poured onto a horizontal surface, will form a conical pile; the resulting slope—which depends on particle size, with larger particles supporting steeper slopes—is known as the angle of repose. It’s a term begging to be made metaphorical for human relations, as Wallace Stegner demonstrates in his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by the same name. In the book, the fraught connection of the present to the past, one generation to the next, replicates the peculiar tension between friction and gravity, between hanging on and falling apart. “You were too alert to the figurative possibilities of words not to see the phrase as descriptive of human as well as detrital rest,” Stegner writes. “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.”

Antonya Nelson