Read maps like you read love letters – A new cartography

The image you see above is called “The Night Sky”. It is a composite of several drawings linked together, and the stars charted to make the map directly above Boylan Heights, a small North Carolina neighborhood that became something of an obsession for Denis Wood beginning in the ’70s. An obsession that has produced something of a “poetics of cartography”.

Artist, author and cartographer, Denis Wood describes the picture:

“This is what you see at night, in early July, if you’re in Boylan Heights and you look up at the sky . . . if you can get out from under the trees. At the top of the hill, in the middle of Boylan Avenue, we lay on our backs to make this map of the stars above the neighborhood. It was about ten o’clock and the asphalt was still warm with the day’s heat. We had a star finder, a flashlight to read it with, paper and pencil. We made a sketch of the horizon and roughed in the stars we could see and returned the next day to make dozens of detailed drawings. Afterwards we linked these together for a 360º view and used charts to make sure of our stars. With a shrunk-down copy, we went back to the street at night and fiddled with it until we got it right.

During summer in Boylan Heights, when you look up, you mostly see trees. At the right, where the horizon dips toward the north, you can see across the cement factory toward downtown and the cylindrical bulk of what was then the Holiday Inn. The white rectangles at top are the lit windows of a house on the east side of Boylan Avenue. The streetlight’s on the west side. The mass of foliage to the left lead south down Boylan. Above? Vega—one of the night sky’s brightest stars is nearly overhead in the Lyre of Orpheus that the Muses placed in the sky after he died. Zeus put the Ursas in the sky. With the glare and summer humidity, we couldn’t see Ursa Minor at all, and all we could see of Ursa Major was its tail, our Big Dipper.

Where is Boylan Heights? It’s in the United States and North Carolina and Wake County and Raleigh, but first and last it’s in the universe. As William Saroyan said, “Birth is into the world, not into a town.”

In Kirstin Butler’s review, she describes maps as the most intimate infographic of all. She describes them as, “those images that tell of our complicated relationships to place, bounded by time”.

I don’t think I have ever been turned on by maps. I know I have never been turned on by a description of them, until now. I chanced upon her review of Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, and then went on to read more about Denis Wood and his Boylan Heights maps through Ira Glass’s interview on This American Life.

What I discovered was simple: maps have nothing to do with direction and everything to do with where you want to go.

I also tried to see what Denis Wood sees, but I couldn’t. He sees invisible beauties.

All I saw was an innate curiosity and I imagine, the kind of gaze one might attribute to autistic geniuses.  An un-shifting focus. Macro vision. The ability to see parts of a picture, and imagine their place in the jigsaw in seamless, tessellated perfection.  He possesses a natural sense of wonder, and eyes that collect and collate patterns that have given birth to a gorgeous manifestation of this obsession.

From windchimes to Jack O’ lanterns, paper routes to police calls and absentee landlords, there is a portrait to be found; an almost cartographic lovemaking. There are new routes to be divined and fresh paths forged never seen on any GPRS system.

This is art, science, mathematics, design, poetry. These are not maps. These are pictures in an album. These are secret love notes passed in a classroom. These are neighborhood stories etched, sketched, and narrated through lines, dots, curves and circles.

The poetry of these pictures resounds with experience. What is conveyed is the essence of what life would have been like in Boylan Heights in the ’80s. Each visual suggests an aura of the era. It is, in its entirety, an atlas that investigates the nature of a place and our experience of it.



In the introduction, Ira Glass writes:

Everything Sings is not a book of maps. And it is a book of maps. But maps to where? To what?  You’ll find your way.  It might be a lark in the face of what is traditional cartography, and yet, as Kirstin Butler says,  it meets the objective that all maps must: to see our world, and its many wonders, anew each day.

What to read next: 7 Must-Read books on maps.

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One thought on “Read maps like you read love letters – A new cartography

  1. this —> As William Saroyan said, “Birth is into the world, not into a town.”
    it would do us all so much good to remember. No state lines, no hate, just gorgeousness that surrounds us.
    so much to see, so much to discover, so much to treasure
    it was a lovely read, thank you.

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