That a cartographer could set out on a mission that’s so emotional, so personal, so idiosyncratic, was news to me.
Iconoclastic geographer Denis Wood has created an atlas unlike any other. He surveys his small, century-old neighborhood Boylan Heights in Raleigh, North Carolina by first paring away the inessential (scale, orientation, street grids), then by locating the revelatory in the unmapped and unmappable: radio waves permeating the air, the paperboy’s route in space and time, the light cast by street lamps, Halloween pumpkins on porches.
His joyful subversion of the traditional notions of map making forge new ways of seeing not only this particular place, but also the very nature of place itself. In pursuit of a “poetics of cartography,” Wood makes maps in which the experience of place is primary, and the eye is attuned to the invisible, the overlooked, and the seemingly insignificant.
These maps have a traditional rigor, but they also have “fingerprints”—a gamut of subjective arguments about the relationships between social class and cultural rituals, about the neighborhood as “transformer,” about maps’ impermanence and fragility—rejecting the idea that they convey a single, static, objective truth. Together, they accumulate into a multi-layered story about one neighborhood that tells the larger, universal story of how we understand and define the places we call home.
DENIS WOOD’s four decades of work as a geographer and independent scholar has influenced the creative and activist spirit of a new generation of critical cartographers, experimental and psycho-geographers, ecologically and politically conscious landscape architects and designers. His most well-known book, The Power of Maps, began as an exhibition Wood curated for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in 1992 (and remounted the following year at the Smithsonian). Wood has since written numerous books that critique and investigate the political and social implications of mapmaking. These books include The Natures of Maps: Cartographic Constructions of the Natural World (University of Chicago, 2009) co-authored with John Fels, Rethinking the Power of Maps (Guilford, 2010) with Fels and John Krygier, Five Billion Years of Global Change: A History of the Land (Guilford, 2003), and Home Rules (John Hopkins University Press, 1994). He is currently at work with Joe Bryan on Weaponizing Maps, a genealogy of US Army mapping of indigenous populations where counter-insurgency military measures have been used for U.S. interests abroad.