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Denis Wood: Emotional Cartographer

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This is taken from the introduction to Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas by Denis Wood ($32, Siglio Press), a series of idiosyncratic maps of a small North Carolina neighborhood, created over several decades. The second edition of the book was recently published.

When I encountered these maps of Boylan Heights years ago, what I first loved was how impractical they were. Most maps are entirely about doing a job. They are dull salarymen who clock in early and spend their days telling you where stuff is with unrelenting precision. They never vary an inch from these appointed rounds.

Not these maps. One of my favorites, Pools of Light, is a dreamy rendering in blurry white circles of the light cast by street lamps. Even if you were in Boylan Heights on a dark night and badly needed to find a street lamp, it's hard to imagine how this map would help you. For one thing, you'd need to get under a street lamp to read the damn map, and once you'd accomplished that, well, you'd have achieved your goal, wouldn't you?

Granted, the map that's dotted with jack-o'-lanterns indicating which houses set them out for Halloween--another favorite--could conceivably be a guide for neighborhood toughs on an unusually thorough smashing binge. But how likely is that? What kind of ten-year-olds would have the impulse to kick in a few pumpkins and also have enough of an OCDish drive to decimate every single one that they'd consult a map?

These maps are completely unnecessary. The world didn't ask for them. They aid no navigation or civic-minded purpose. They're just for pleasure. They laugh at the stupid Google map I consult five times a day on my phone. They laugh at what a square that map is. At its small-mindedness. They know it's a sad, workaholic salaryman.

Their mission is more novelistic. Which I also love. What they chart isn't Boylan Heights exactly but Wood's feelings about Boylan Heights, his curiosity about it, and his sense of wonder at all the things about the place that are overlooked and unnamed.

That a cartographer could set out on a mission that's so emotional, so personal, so idiosyncratic, was news to me. It reminds me of how a recent generation of comic book artists turned that hack medium of superhero adventures into a medium of novelistic stories drenched in feeling and personality. It reminds me of all the bloggers and tumblrs and tweeters who've taken a global computer network designed for engineers and the defense establishment and transformed it into their noisy, messy clubhouse.

And these maps remind me of all the radio stories I love most. After all, radio is mostly a boring salaryman, waking up before you and me to announce the headlines or play the hits to some predetermined demographic. Yet some radio stories elbow their way into the world in defiance of that unrelentingly practical mission, with the same goal Denis Wood's maps have: to take a form that's not intended for feeling or mystery and make it breathe with human life.

Which brings me to the oddest thing about these maps. They describe human lives without ever showing us any people. Instead, we see the underground structures that humans build for waste and the paths they make for squirrels in the sky. We see which homes have wind chimes and which ones call the cops. We see the route of the letter carrier and the life cycle of the daily paper. Wood is writing a novel where we never meet the main characters, but their stuff is everywhere. I don't know exactly how to describe the feeling that creates. It's like walking around a world that's been decimated by a neutron bomb and walking into all the houses. You miss the people who lived here, and you think about their daily routines. You can count the scraps of toast left on their plates and smell the bacon they were preparing right before they were vaporized. Their lives seem far away and utterly present, both at the same time. Which somehow makes our world seem fragile and very precious. Maybe it's just me, but that seems like the opposite of the feeling ordinary maps give us, with their rock solid facts and their obsession with street names. They make the world seem anything but fragile.

Though, of course, the world is fragile. And fleeting. And so Denis Wood's maps are a far more accurate depiction of Boylan Heights than any normal map could ever hope to be.

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