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Life’s angle of repose

It would be easy to think of this hill behind my house as a natural feature, a thing the forces of glaciation, uplift, and wind and water erosion delivered here. But humans used what these forces had left to form this landscape. They made decisions according to the logic of their time and space that now seem random, unformed, illogical without the context of those that made them to explain. In the end, the people who came before turned a gully, an alley running down the center of a residential block, into a hill with the shape of a tortoise.

My hill is built of construction and demolition landfill. Such fill is a symptom of collective individual action. What looks to be a tangled uninformed mess of mysterious and unidentifiable ingredients has order in a Chaos Theory sort of way. Every rock, piece of material, layer of detritus makes sense, particularly when considered in historical moments of what it is and where it came from. In the same way, then, that a crowd looks unformed, random, chaotic, a look inward to it reveals highly structured individuals, people, each acting in their own ways for their own reasons.

In the late 1890s, the city of Kansas City built a grand boulevard where once a neighborhood stood. Builders laid a roadway diagonally, corner-to-corner down several residential blocks and bordered with park. Houses the working class and working poor built in the 1870s, their outhouses, out buildings, and sidewalks, streets, and curbs fell before a grand upper-middle class vision of parks and open spaces at the turn of the twentieth century.[1] The detritus—stone, concrete, brick, pipe—came to rest in what was the gully, along with a great deal more demolition material from elsewhere in the city. Then, for forty years, the city continued to dump debris and dirt onto the hill. It represented decisions government, social elites, commercial elements, and bureaucracies made in the last decades of the 19th century. The hill is also the concrete representation of the collective actions of hundreds of people like those who sold or lost their homes to eminent domain for the boulevard. I can say, with some confidence, other’s destruction and construction about 120 years ago birthed my hill, which reached maturity 70 or so years ago.[2]

Fill, itself, is testament to gravity. After bulldozers scraped the initial debris into the gully, men at the wheels of large trucks backed in and pulled red toggles on their gearshifts. The buckets lifted on hydraulic cylinders. Out of gates spilled refuse—bottles, ceramic, and glass mixed in a medium of rock, clay, and loess. Dumped into a pile, any material will reach an angle of repose. Leroy Hannebaum describes this best in Landscape Design: A Practical Approach:

For each soil there is a maximum angle of repose: the steepest gradient at which the soil will remain in place. Beyond that gradient, the soil will slide to the base of the slope until the angle of repose is reached. Whenever soil is piled loosely, it seeks its own particular angle of repose, which is affected by the moisture content of the soil as well as the soil type.[3]

Men with bulldozers pushed the spilled fill into form, in this case a steep embankment, and it stayed in place.

Because of gravity, a pile will remain a pile until acted on by erosion. But gravity has a way of complicating things. The pile will remain stable as long as the fill did not rise above its angle of repose. In this case, the pile rose on itself, each load of fill spilling, coming to rest, spilling down itself again, until the hill as a whole found its angle of repose. The men shaped it, and it did not slide away, slouch out to cover the plain below as a liquid might. It stayed there after the last puffs of diesel smoke had lifted into the sunset, eroding some until grass and weeds grew to hold it in place.

If human lives can be considered to have angles of repose, many people find their angles of repose after a short time. Some are born at them. Still others continually “slide to the base of the slope.” My life has been one of these last. Home was a not a place I grew up, came to know in its niches, and stored a bank of memories. It was a random place—arbitrary, unsafe, mined with perils of anger, frustration, and sadness. Our house was in a suburb, a faceless place. Our family was a group of people who knew each other only in passing. Even today, they are strangers to me. As soon as I could leave them, I did. I never looked back except to want for something I thought other people had.

The consequence, of course, was an unanchored life. Adrift, I could only dream of family, watch the way people formed relationships on television, read about them in books. Our suburban house was a shell, a place for migrants, a place without sentimentality or affection. I remember it having seen it day after day for nineteen years. More than that, I cannot tell. What is sure is that having lived this in that empty space for so long, I had no idea what it meant to find a place to call home. I could love but could not be a partner in a relationship. I went from job to job, and still don’t know what, exactly a career is. I attended college on and off. I apprenticed in a vineyard in Germany. I worked for years as a chef. I finished college. I traveled extensively, renovated and painted houses, refinished and restored antique furniture. I went to graduate school. I wrote for newspapers, and then edited them. I traveled some more.

And I moved into a house in the valley below here. It was then that I’d realized I found what I had sought. For the first time in my life, I had come home.

Since, I’ve moved twice, each time just a few blocks—small adjustments in my angle of repose. I like to think of this house as my final resting place, a place I will have to be carried from dead. Our street runs in a pass between two prominent hills, Observation Hill and Irish Hill, both of which rise from the edge of a bluff. The base of the incline in my back yard starts upward toward the summit of Irish Hill. The bluff below the street out front, the city’s downtown, and the next bluff south about a mile or so define the parameters of my life. I would be happy never to leave here again. Everything I need—friends, food, a library, home—is here.

So, a special kind of person might find the incline in my yard fits them perfectly—a harmony of nature and human. With a little foresight, one could remain free of the land for a long time—the grade prevents mowing; native grasses and weeds mingle in a way attractive to the eye; and trees in adjoining yards shade the back of the house. The wind produces a soothing swish as it passes along the hill’s west-facing, north-and-south running curve, bending the grasses and weeds where songbirds gather for shelter and to peck seed. Long after the shadow of the house has fallen on the hill, evening steeps the hill in easy twilight. In fall and winter, the brown patch above the new-lain sod oranges in the early afternoon and deepens to red in the evening and dark brown at night.

In time, the weeds would give over to a tangled mess of skinny cottonwoods (from the tree next door), elms (from the tree in the yard behind), sycamore (from the boulevard out front), and mulberry (from a similar tangle two yards up). The trees would support a snarl of grape, poison Ivy, cinquefoil, and Virginia creeper. More than likely, a single cottonwood or sycamore would emerge from the confusion in twenty or thirty years and stand with a couple of scrubby elms at its base. (And this speculation is cut short for the power line above, as the electric company guards its assets jealously.)

The incline keeps my mind busy day and night. It creates in me tensions about what to do with my land, my property, my little corner of the world (which rightly belongs to my wife, my daughter, and me). One of the great benefits of having lived adrift for so long is the gambit of explorations I’ve made, and in doing so, the number of things I’ve become good at and found that I liked. Conversely, these myriad experiences generate conflicts in relation to thinking about the land that arise one at a time or severally. This is because, at any time of the day, I could call myself one or more, or all, of the following:

gardener, anarchist, father, blue-collar worker, naturalist, sculptor, minister, socialist, husband, environmentalist, humanist, urban dweller, historian, syndicalist, journalist, writer, entrepreneur, editor, painter, poet, amateur agronomist, horticulturist

Each has a special view of the earth, of nature, and particularly, of my back yard. Each poses a set of conflicts with the others, so when I am deciding to change the earth, I am at odds with those parts of me who believe that things ought to be left alone and those parts who want to see what happens. Some of me want to recreate, others want to farm, still others want to lay in the tall weeds and feel the creep of insects through my hair. I have one dominant part who sees chaos as an order of its own, trusts that the natural and human are together in the right ways and will work out for the human or not, regardless. And there’s something unsettling about that for another part of me , who would rather have something resolved, some kind of ending, a place where, for a certainty, the workings of human and nature are one and the same—that the human and the natural are one and that both enjoy endless prosperity.

[1] For a background of the Kansas City boulevard and parks system see, Janice Lee, Deon Wolfenbarger, David Boutros, Charlotte R. White, Julie Stockmann and Beth Skelley, Eds; An Historical Survey of the Kansas City, Missouri, Parks and Boulevards System, 1893-1940 (Kansas City Center for Design Education and Research and Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City, 1995), and particularly of West Pennway Boulevard (spoken of here directly) 167-199.

[2] Interview, John Cottrel, West Housing Organization, Sept. 2002. Sanborn-Perris Map Co., Insurance Maps of Kansas City, MO, vol. 1 (Jackson, Clay, Platte counties), 1895-96, sheets 34, 41; Sanborn Map Company, Insurance Maps of Kansas City, MO, vol. 1 (Jackson, Clay, Platte counties), 1909, sheets 55-56. U.S. Geological Survey Satellite Map, Kansas City, MO, United States.

[3] Hannebaum, Leroy. Landscape Design: A Practical Approach (Reston Publishing, Reston VA, 1981), 83 (quote), 95.

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