Denis Wood – Counter-culture cartographer: instead of standard data-based images, these maps depict the neighborhood as an aggregate of literally endless forms: the light that fills the streets, the delivery routes of local newspapers, the faces of pumpkins in front of homes at Halloween

Denis Wood, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, Siglio, 2010.

These maps are completely unnecessary. 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.Ira Glass

„Denis Wood has created an atlas unlike any other. From mapping radio waves permeating the air to Halloween pumpkins on porches, Wood's joyful subversion of the traditional notions of mapmaking forge new ways of seeing not only the particular, but also the very nature of place itself. Surveying his century-old, half-square mile neighborhood Boylan Heights in Raleigh, North Carolina, Wood searches for the revelatory details in what has never been mapped or may not even be mappable. In each map, he attunes the eye to the invisible, the overlooked, and the seemingly insignificant. Together, these maps accumulate into a multi-layered story about one neighborhood as well as about the pursuit of understanding the places we call home. This alchemical combination of science and art creates a fascinating tension between the empirical and the elusive, between what one can know and what one can imagine. As much as Everything Sings is a collection of extraordinary maps, it is also a testament to the imaginative capacity of humans to make them.“

„Featuring an introduction by Ira Glass, the book is unlike anything I've ever seen, a series of maps of Wood's North Carolina neighborhood, in which the community is represented by a variety of factors: streetlights, mail carrier routes, jack-o'-lanterns, fallen autumn leaves. The result is a volume that is beautiful and informative that encourages us to see the world in different ways.“ - David Ulin

„Everything Sings is an atlas that is not an atlas: it is a series of stories that, along with Denis Wood s illuminating text, read like a compelling work of fiction. Welcome to the mysterious, mundane, unique, and commonplace world of Boylan Heights, a location fortunate enough to be flattered with the kind of inventive and groundbreaking mapping Wood offers here.“ - Katherine Harmon

„Though Denis Wood had been mapping things since elementary school, he had never really thought of himself as a mapmaker until Ira Glass, interviewing him for This American Life, asked him if he made any maps himself. What he ended up talking about was Singing and Dancing: A Narrative Atlas of Boylan Heights, incomplete and unpublished though it was. Since the interview drew attention to the atlas it has been fairly continuously on display in one form or another. It was published by Siglio Press as the book, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, in November, 2010.
The project grew out of desperation. Assigned to teach a landscape architecture studio in his second semester at North Carolina State – this would be spring 1974 – and with zero knowledge of landscape architecture, Wood taught what he knew: how to pay attention to the environment. Since his students were bright and graphically literate, he pushed them to map the neighborhood in ways that would fully exploit their acumen and imagination, what the neighborhood smelled like, for example, what it sounded like. (What is the sound, the smell of landscape architecture?)
The project rapidly acquired a momentum of its own and in a series of studios in the early and mid-1980s grew into Singing and Dancing: A Narrative Atlas of Boylan Heights. This “narrative” atlas – a subject Wood theorized in a presentation to an school atlas conference at the University of Calgary in 1986 (“Pleasure In the Idea: The Atlas As a Narrative Form,” Cartographica,24(1), Spring, 1987, pp. 24-45) – advanced the thesis that neighborhoods are “transformers,” forms of organization that transform individuals into citizens and citizens into individuals, that mediate between the natural gas fields of Texas and the burner on your stove, between geologic history and a stroll downhill to the store, between the universe and the stars you can see through your window. The atlas tried to establish this with maps of the neighborhood along a rich diversity of dimensions: stars visible from the neighborhood, geology, underground infrastructure, trees, traffic signs, property ownership, assessed property values, fences, Halloween pumpkins, wind chimes, fall leaf colors…
Until recently only 40 some pages of a projected 125 had ever been completed, but during the past year work on the atlas began anew. For the forthcoming Everything Sings maps have been redrafted, drafted maps have been finished, and new maps have been made. Below is a list of places where the original atlas was reproduced or exhibited.“
„Since 1972, Denis Wood has published numerous articles, books, and lectures aiming to broaden the public conception of cartography. His book and curated Smithsonian exhibit, The Power of Maps, criticized the notion of the map as a neutral reference material and revealed the governmental and legal biases behind the most innocuous-seeming topographical illustrations. He sees the map as a unique tool able of conveying surprising information on a 2-D plane and to be an artwork of aesthetic sublimity. His maps are, he insists, arguments.
Wood’s most recent book, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, is a collection of visual representations of Boylan Heights, the small North Carolina neighborhood where he raised his children. Instead of standard data-based images, these maps depict the neighborhood as an aggregate of literally endless forms: the light that fills the streets, the delivery routes of local newspapers, the faces of pumpkins in front of homes at Halloween. The result is an impression of the lives of the people of Boylan Heights, and the influence of terrain upon them.“ —Blake Butler

„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 lights. 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 and high school yuks 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 a noisy, messy clubhouse and playground.
And these maps remind me of all the radio stories I love most. After all, most radio is 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.“ - IRA GLASS

"Astonishing. So much so that this review almost died aborning. Doing genuine justice to this slim but subversive and innovative volume would require a critique the length of a full Annals article and would also call for analytical and communicative skills that might be beyond my grasp. For what it is worth, here is my bravest effort.
DenisWood, polymath, thinker, doer, designer, poet,
geographer, and gadfly-at-large, offers us an experimental
introduction to a narrative atlas that can never be
completed: a fully rounded account in graphics and
words, from the dim geological past up to the near
present, of all the meaningful attributes of the animate
and inanimate life of Boylan Heights, the small residential
neighborhood near downtown Raleigh, North
Carolina, where he has lived since 1974. We have
here “the cosmos as seen through the knothole of a
neighborhood”—and for once a jacket blurb that speaks
the truth: “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 intrepid author has perpetrated thirty-nine
highly unconventional drawings or renderings in blackand-
white that follow a nineteen-page essay that must
be read and savored more than once. The mappable
data in question were collected over a period of several
years, beginning with Wood’s rambles and interviews
throughout the neighborhood in the late 1970s,
then subsequently with the energetic collaboration of
his students in the landscape architecture department of
North Carolina State University in 1982–1983. After
that, for reasons that are notmade clear, almost all ofthe
material was put into dead storage, not to be resuscitated
until recently, thanks to the notoriety of a couple of
plates that were publicly exhibited in influential places.
Our author does not apologize for the quarter-century
gap between what is represented here and the presentday
reality. Any unlikely updating should atone for the
absence of a few items that could and should have been
included here: flag display, religious objects, election
posters, and holiday decorations (to accompany that
delicious plate entitled “Jack-O’-Lanterns”).
What shall we call the illustrations? Only a handful
look even remotely familiar: “Boylan’s Hill,” a topographic
map; “Intrusions under Hill,” a depiction of underground
gas lines, water mains, and sewers; “Streets,”
only one of two (the other being “Autumn Leaves”)
with any amount of lettering; “Assessed Value”; and
the only nondrawing, “Aerial View,” which is just that,
a vertical photo of the neighborhood and its environs.
As for the others, what term to invent: mapoids? metamaps?
In any event, these are not your standard-issue maps
of yore, but rather another skirmish in Wood’s tireless
campaign to drag cartography out of its nineteenthcentury
doldrums into the modern age and elevate it
to the same expressive potency we expect in the best
of contemporary literature and the fine arts. Not to be
seen here are neat line, scale, grid, north arrow, streets,
and verbiage (with the two exceptions already noted)
or any inserts or marginal matter.
There are thirty-four eclectic or, to some, whimsical
topics to be ogled, each accompanied by supple,
enviable prose commentary that challenges the
geographic imagination or simply delights. Five of
them might have been predicted even though seldom
accosted in atlases or other serious publications: “Alley
Ways”; “Assessed Value”; “Shotgun, Bungalow, Mansion”;
“Fences”; and “Sidewalk Graffiti.” As for the outrageous
others, a few themes do recur. Wood seems to
be obsessed with trees, a laudable eccentricity, for we
have here no fewer than seven arboreal presentations.
Tied for second place is the allocation of five sets of facing
pages devoted to movement and the related topic of
communication. Within the former rubric, one can relish
the treatment of “Mailman,” “Lester’s Paper Route
in Space&Time,” “Two Routes,” “The Paper’s Route,”
and “Bus Ballet.” Under the heading of communication
we encounter “Squirrel Highways” (the overhead utility
lines for electricity, telephone, and cable), “Signs for
Strangers,” “Police Calls,” “Newsletter Prominence,”
and wildest of all, “Radio Waves,” showing in a
mind-boggling map-cum-diagram the wave fronts for
signals emanating from five local or regional broadcasting
stations. Light also figures conspicuously in this
postage stamp of a territory with four pairs of illuminating
pages documenting “Night Sky,” “Pools of Light,”
“Rhythm of the Sun,” and “The Light at Night on Cutler
Street.” I must applaud with special glee the appearance
of a pair of offerings informing us about the
world of sound, a topic studiously ignored by virtually
all geographers: “A Sound Walk” and “Wind Chimes.”
Aside from giving us a glorious assemblage of fascinating
glimpses into a deeply cherished place, what has
been achieved? At a quite elementary level—and even
though it is a genre Wood disdains—we do have here
at least some sort of reference work. But what about the
higher goal? Is “Everything Sings” a meaningful, logicladen
step forward toward a fully armed narrative atlas,
one with a real argument and a worthy destination?
Has he closed the deal on neighborhoods as process or
transformers? The only honest verdict must be this: not
proven. Perhaps it is only in the realm of superior fiction
that we approach the true essence of places and their
dynamics with such famous achievements as William
Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha and James Joyce’s Dublin. In
the realm of nonfiction, where visual images do not
suffice and we must also hear human voices, in some
exceptional instances of participant observation, such
as James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, where
we penetrate into the lives of Alabama sharecroppers,
or Henry Glassie’s Ballymenone, we do get at the soul
of a community. Denis Wood is about halfway there.
Thanks for the cartographic effort and please keep on
trying.“ - Wilbur Zelinsky

„The most intimate infographics of all may be maps, those images that tell of our complicated relationships to place, bounded by time. Or at least, this is just one of the interesting arguments made by the book Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, a beautiful exploration of a small North Carolina neighborhood that also provides a platform for much larger ideas, published by Siglio Press in 2010.
We’ve long believed in the transformative power of maps, which was why we immediately fell in love with Everything Sings and its author, Denis Wood. A kind of counter-culture cartographer, Wood has for decades sought ways to call the seeming objectivity of maps into question. In his fascinating introduction to the book, Wood wonders why map-making was an artistic discipline that somehow escaped modernism’s critical overhaul, its conventions barely changing in the centuries since it was first practiced.
Admitting that atlases were narrative — that they were texts — would force the admission that the individual maps were texts too, that maps constituted a semiological system indistinguishable from other semiological systems, like those of paintings or novels or poems.” - Denis Wood

"His argument for a kind of “poetics of cartography” provides context to the maps that follow, a narrative about how life was in his Boylan Heights neighborhood in the early 1980s.
Everything Sings grew out of an episode of NPR’s This American Life in which host Ira Glass inadvertently came across Wood’s shelved project from a university course he’d previously taught to landscape architecture students. Glass contributes a fantastic foreword that pretty much sums up what makes the collection so special." -Kirstin Butler


Interview by Tim Stallmann

Denis Wood, Rethinking the Power of Maps, The Guilford Press, 2010.

"A contemporary follow-up to the groundbreaking Power of Maps, this book takes a fresh look at what maps do, whose interests they serve, and how they can be used in surprising, creative, and radical ways. Denis Wood describes how cartography facilitated the rise of the modern state and how maps continue to embody and project the interests of their creators. He demystifies the hidden assumptions of mapmaking and explores the promises and limitations of diverse counter-mapping practices today. Thought-provoking illustrations include U.S. Geological Survey maps; electoral and transportation maps; and numerous examples of critical cartography, participatory GIS, and map art."

"A captivating contribution to our understanding of maps and mapping practice. Wood offers a broad canvas of maps, map makers, and map users, linking traditional cartographies to exciting new experiments. He explores the ways in which, as maps make propositions about the world, they shape how we understand and live in it. This is a book you cannot put down and one that demands to be read in one or two sittings. It may be the best book on maps and mapping I have read." - John Pickles

"In an age when mapping is sexy again, Wood explains why it should matter to everyone, how maps came to be deployed by states, and how the authority of the image is now being used by many different voices. This is a passionate humanist argument for a critical approach to mapping, strongly academic but reassuringly accessible. Wood’s work always challenges; the style and panache of his scholarship carry the reader along and persuade us to listen to his original ideas. Mapping and counter-mapping are brought together for the first time. Researchers and students across the social sciences, and indeed from all disciplines, should read this book and take its lessons to heart!" - Chris Perkins

"Rethinking the Power of Maps sharpens the argument of Wood's earlier work and focuses its attention on the construction of power. Every student of cartography should take notice." - Nicholas Chrisman

“Using a variety of examples, Wood illustrates and helps readers deduce how map percipients use, interpret, misuse, and misinterpret maps....A valuable read. Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above." - Choice Reviews

Denis Wood, The Power of Maps, The Guilford Press, 1992.

"This book accompanies an exhibit called "The Power of Maps," which is being held at New York City's Cooper Hewitt Museum from October 1992 to March 1993. For those not fortunate enough to see the exhibit, the book stands by itself. It aims to show that every cartographer has an agenda of some kind and to assist the map user in figuring out that agenda. The writing is entertaining but a bit wordy and irritatingly full of ellipses. In addition, though cocurator Wood's thinking is often quite good, the reader must still beware of flights of fancy, as when he gives a facetious reason for why United States Geological Survey maps don't have full legends on each. For general collections and collections on cartography." - Mary L. Larsgaard

"If compelled to cite only a single book on cartography to stock a desert-island shelf or to assign to the eager novice, this is the automatic choice... Although I have been drawing and poring over maps, as well as reading about them, since childhood, I received more revelations about their essential nature and larger meanings from this one powerful, disturbing, totally convincing essay than from all the other books, articles, and lectures on the subject I have ever encountered.' - Wilbur Zelinsky

"Combining both topical issues relevant to lay readers and serious scholarship, Denis Wood's The Power of Maps will provoke, amuse, tweak, and inform anyone who has had occasion to use, or merely peruse, a map--which is to say, everyone. It is a relentless entertainment--relentlessly challenging to traditional assumptions about cartography, relentlessly witty as it deconstructs (read: demolishes) the pretense of neutral, scientific' map-making, and relentlessly contrary in reminding us that maps reflect social choices and serve particular political interests.' - Stephen S. Hall

"Perhaps the simplest thing to say is that there is nothing quite like it! There are, of course, countless conventional accounts of cartography -- usually a combination of the history of cartography and a catalogue of its technical achievements-- but these are usually Whiggish tales which celebrate the progressive advance of cartography towards 'Truth.' Apart from a short discussion of so-called 'propaganda maps' (which is there simply to mark a departure from the norm, so to speak, an anomaly) these books rarely offer any sustained discussion of what one might call the cultural and political implications of maps and mapping. With the current explosion of interest in cultural politics and social theory, both inside and outside human geography, there is an obvious need for a discussion which resists those conventions. I can think of only Mark Monmonier's HOW TO LIE WITH MAPS -- which from all accounts has done extremely well, but is narrower in scope than Wood's text -- and the late Brian Harley's marvellous essays on deconstruction and mapping -- which may well be too abstract for many readers. In any event, I have no doubt that Denis Wood's book will be a major contribution to this emerging discussion of the power and politics of maps and mapping: it is written in a clear and accessible style but none the less deals with some of the most complex issues in contemporary debates over power, knowledge and spatiality. It is immensely engaging: the examples and illustrations are to the point and by no means obvious, and the issues that are raised extend far beyond the confines of any purely academic discipline. This is one of those rare books that will prompt its readers to re-think some of their most taken-for-granted assumptions and the ways in which those conventions bear on their everyday lives." - Derek Gregory

John Krygier i Denis Wood, Ce N’est Pas Le Monde

Denis Wood web page