Denis Wood is an old friend who played an important role in nurturing The Paper Plant into existence in the early 1980s. He was an engaging and innovative professor during that tenure of his life, and now has turned his intellectual charms to the theory or philosophy of cartography, writing numerous books and just completing a lecture tour in Germany. His most recent publication, Everything Sings, is a book of radically different maps, illustrating his unique take on what a map can be and how it effects us. It is also a wonderfully quirky portrait of Boylan Heights, and the book’s success shows how interesting and important Denis’ work is, as well as how hot Raleigh is, and how treasured is that neighborhood in its history. The book cover, seen above, displays the location and carving pattern of Boylan Heights pumpkins on a Halloween. Pecan tree locations, utility services, and lot sizes all became subjects of innovative maps created by graduate students under Wood’s tutelage.
Denis spoke and presented this fall at the Boylan Ave Brewery to celebrate the publication of the book. It was well attended and Denis entertained quite well with the amazing story of how his book came to be – an interview for background information with Ira Glass for an NPR story on maps, his casual mention of a long term project with NCSU design students, and the subsequent segment of This American Life which brought the project to the attention of book publishers. The actual production of Everything Sings involved many winding turns, but now that it’s finally out, it is not only selling well, but been nominated for the University of Iowa’s The Essay Prize.
Denis is such a creative thinker and enthusiastic cultural worker. His talk presented small samples of the ideas in his major books – that maps represent not just a set of places but a representation of the way we think about places, if at all. Maps can take many forms, and the formats of our maps shape the way we think about the world. Maps can enhance, shift or corrupt our view of the world. We can also enlarge our sense of the world through creative use and creation of maps, and that is at the core of Denis Wood’s work.
The book that helped promote and elucidate these concepts on the national scene is The Power of Maps, his 1992 book, co-authored with John Fels, that helped literally turn everyone’s concpetions of maps upside down. Last year, they published the title pictured above, which updates and enlarges their approach.
Denis is continually sharing his ideas. His recent presentation at a conference called Mapping Maps: What’s New About Neocartography, in Seigen Germany, was part of a media studies program, and involved people working at what seems to this layman to be right at the edge of cartography: Geo-annotation, The Rise of Aerial Photogrammetry, Performative Cartography, Playful Cartography, and explorations of web resources such as OpenStreetMap. Denis was the main evening speaker and presented his critique entitled The Challenge to Neocartography Posed by Guy Debord and Kevin Lynch. His workshops in Frankfort shared his ideas on the nature of maps with graduate students, and in Liepzig he presented to traditional geographers about “A Place Off the Map: The Case for a Non-Map-based Place Title.”
All this was and is very interesting but I must confess my favorite stories from Germany were about the European flavors and customs, along with some delicious gossip about European academic politics. Denis provokes you to consider new ideas, but he doesn’t press them – mainly because he’s quickly on to some other new ideas – plus the ones you’ve made him think of during the conversation! He is a treasure, he is doing great stuff, and I hope you keep an eye out for him.
Siglio Press on Everything Sings:
Denis Wood has created an atlas unlike any other. Surveying Boylan Heights, his small neighborhood in North Carolina, he subverts the traditional notions of mapmaking to discover new ways of seeing both this place in particular and the nature of place itself. Each map attunes the eye to the invisible, the overlooked, and the seemingly insignificant. From radio waves permeating the air to the location of Halloween pumpkins on porches, Wood searches for the revelatory details in what has never been mapped or may not even be mappable. In his pursuit of a “poetics of cartography,” the experience of place is primary, useless knowledge is exalted, and representation strives toward resonance. Our perception of maps and how to read them changes as we regard their beauty, marvel at their poetry, and begin to see the neighborhoods we live in anew. Everything Sings weaves a multi-layered story about one neighborhood as well as about the endeavor of truly knowing the places which we call home.
That a cartographer could set out on a mission that’s so emotional, so personal, so idiosyncratic, was news to me. IRA GLASS, host of This American Life, from his introduction to Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas
Ira Glass interview with Denis Wood about Everything Sings:
Denis Wood website:
This book is featured on Places, the online journal of architecture, landscape and urbanism