An Interview with Denis Wood

Since 1972, Denis Wood has been striving to alter the public’s outlook on cartography with his written works, books, and lectures.

He presented his research in his book and Smithsonian exhibit entitled The Power of Maps, which critiques the idea of maps being simply objective reference materials.

According to him, maps are powerful tools which are capable of expressing surprising facts on a 2-D plane and even be seen as artwork. Wood is adamant that maps are indeed arguments.

Wood’s newest work, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, features visualizations of the place where he raised his kids, Boylan Heights, North Carolina. 

It’s not the typical data-based illustrations, but rather representations of the infinite aspects of the district. For example, the light that fills the street, the route of local newspapers, and the illuminated pumpkins around the houses during Halloween. 

The end result is an impression of the people living in Boylan Heights and how the environment affects them.

I had a conversation with Wood concerning Google Maps, the American Civil War’s battlegrounds, Philip Pullman’s book The Golden Compass, and how maps can influence our daily lives in unexpected ways.

_ –Blake Butler, author_


In Everything Sings, the introduction mentions how Mercator’s vision of the atlas was one of an “all-encompassing cosmographical meditation”, meant to encompass all, but instead, it went on to be perceived as a “reference manual of supposed facts”.

DENIS WOOD: Mercator had a vision of creating a comprehensive “cosmographical meditation” about the universe; however, it was not connected with any obvious commercial purposes.

Yet his maps were sold even before the atlas was completed, and they became a commercial success. They were attractive, useful, and modern, so they were in high demand and reprinted in multiple editions.

The dream of writing an encyclopedic account of the universe was a lofty one, that might not have been commercially feasible. In contrast, maps were a way of turning paper into money by printing information on them and selling them.

Mercator was also intending to include a chronology of world history, a chronology of ancient history, and multiple compendia, which would have been an impossible endeavor to monetize.

BLVR: It appears – particularly in Everything Sings – that if a person lived for eternity, they could continually create new maps and never be done.

It’s a never-ending cycle since some of the maps – for example, the one that records the hue of the leaves on a certain tree in autumn ¾ could be revisited each year and it would be diverse. The amount of information available and how it is comprehended is limitless.

In Everything Sings, the concept of something being endless applies to a small area, but it becomes even more boundless when it is extended to the whole world.

Weather maps tend to be updated at least once an hour, resulting in a never-ending collection of maps. Climate is the long-term version of the weather, and it is produced by carefully tracking the daily and often hourly weather patterns across the globe.

This accumulation of data allows us to form a greater understanding of what we refer to as knowledge. Instead of just the weather, we are now able to produce climate.

At the outset of my exploration of Everything Sings, I was mulling over the old adage that a “picture is worth a thousand words”.

I had always considered this statement to be foolish, for a word has a unique capacity to capture something that cannot be depicted in a picture.

A map, however, lies somewhere between the visual and the verbal, and your idea that “a map is an argument” is particularly interesting in this regard.

When comparing Google Earth to Google Maps, the former is essentially pictures, with no labels or words. It is the addition of these words that turns Google Earth into an actual map.

It is this layer of words that provide an interpretation of the landscape, such as labeling a mountain is “Mount Ararat”, for example.

The map does not provide an actual representation of the land, but instead gives a human perspective of the landscape.

Photographs are similar in that they also provide a certain selectivity and bandwidth, but they do not offer as much detail as a map. Maps also have a certain arrogance built in, as they allow us to “name and claim” the land.

An image of Denis Wood can be seen here, with the photographer having captured him in the year 2012. The photo displays Wood in his interview setting, with the backdrop of a 1920 x 834 JPEG.


In BLVR, it is mentioned that signs are not necessary if one is already well-acquainted with a particular place; they are just for those who are unfamiliar with it. For instance, if you have been living in Walker Street for a while, you would have no need for the sign pointing it out.

DW stated that street signs are for those in the unfamiliar, but that the number on the door is more important. This is so that the mailman can’t deliver mail to the correct address, and the mortgage foreclosure can effectively foreclose on the property.

BLVR: Maps have evolved from telling stories to conveying data through the use of symbols and language. This makes it difficult to comprehend the terrain in the physical world when translating from the representation to the actuality.

DW: Exploring a new city without knowing the names of the streets is a lovely experience. You may find yourself without a plan, simply wandering around, without paying attention to the street names. You still retain the memory of going left or right, or if you noticed something in particular.

You don’t need to know the names of the buildings, but when you share the experience with someone else, they can tell you the actual name of what you saw and give it a story.

It’s all about the interpretation and understanding, not just the symbols and graphics we see. There is no universal language, they all need to be read and interpreted.

BLVR: In the event that someone with no prior familiarity with the language encountered a stop sign, they would just pass by it without comprehending its significance.

DW remarked that when Voyager shuttles sent the Voyager Golden Record out into the universe, they had to find a way to communicate with creatures that did not understand language. He then jokingly added that he found the project somewhat delusional.

He went on to explain that as he was creating his atlas, a lot of the maps had no words on them, but the individual maps only became meaningful when in the context of all the other maps.

He further stated that if one were to see only the pumpkins on the cover, it would be impossible to discern that it was a map. He concluded that since we are people of words, and it is through words that we understand the world, it would be far from the point to put labels or addresses on the pumpkins.

BLVR: Something I found to be compelling in Everything Sings was your observation that “Any order will give rise to narrative.”

I think the best stories stem from having the smaller components speak for themselves instead of having someone speak for them. I’m doubtful of those who are too attached to the idea of having created something. It is more fascinating to have the human as a filter compared to the human as a center of ego.

DW’s perspectives as a geographer involve constantly examining the material origins of a person, from the lettuce from California to the beef from Iowa, and other such connections.

He wishes to observe how an individual is formed from a variety of components that are intricately connected to the planet.

When I was a kid, I read Walt Disney’s Our Friend the Atom which contained a fascinating image of Leonardo DaVinci. It depicted the atoms of oxygen that had passed through his body during his lifetime, which were then exhaled and spread throughout the atmosphere.

This means that each time you inhale, you are taking in 200 atoms that were once part of Leonardo DaVinci’s body. This made me ponder: does this mean that Leonardo DaVinci is now dispersed? And the answer is yes, in an atomic sense, he is now spread among the universe.

Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass books also have a similar concept in them, where souls are released into the universe and eventually dissolve, having no heavenly home to go to. This is Pullman’s way of expressing the idea that the notion of ‘me’ is ultimately illusory.


This section focuses on preadolescent males who are 11 years old.

BLVR: Did you acquire some of this data for these maps from the assistance of others?

In the classroom, the majority of these maps were created by the students.

BLVR: You’re collaborating with a group of individuals in order to create an illustration of a location where you spent a substantial amount of your life.

DW described his time living in a certain place for 25 years, and his children growing up there: a portrait of the area in maps. As a geographer, he also considered it as something else.

His maps were more interesting than those created in geography programs, he believes, as design students wanted to make a statement in visual form while cartographers preferred to remain anonymous.

The scientist wants to take credit for their ideas, but the data is the most important thing. Designers, however, are coming from a different point of view, expressing themselves.

I also pondered over what constitutes a “neighborhood”. Leonard Bowden, a theorist, believed that the concept of neighborhood is created by preadolescent boys of the age of eleven.

They are able to connect families, go beyond boundaries and enter homes that their parents would not, meeting people their parents would not even acknowledge. This is something that girls were not allowed to do, and older boys were kept away due to school commitments.

In order to understand what creates a neighborhood’s identity and structure, the students and I looked at maps. We concluded that a neighborhood transforms a city citizen into someone with specific relationships, who can appreciate the sun shining on their front porch.

Additionally, it turns the limited individual into a citizen which participates in a larger social structure that is too large for anyone to comprehend.

BLVR: In my area, if you travel a short distance north, there are several fields which were the sites of Civil War battles.

These fields are marked with signs that detail the battles, casualties, and more – but aside from these, the area just looks like any other field with power lines running across. Even with these signs, it can still be difficult to get an accurate sense of what truly happened in these places.

DW suggested that a more accurate representation of the Civil War would be to make statues of soldiers dying in agony on the battlefield.

He pointed to the Korean War monument in Washington as an example, noting that although it depicts soldiers with guns, it does not depict the grim reality of what happened on the fields of the Civil War.

An image of Denis Wood is presented, depicting the interview he had. This photo shows the discussion taking place, highlighting the importance of the event.


BLVR: How do you compare to other mapmakers? Are there any conflicts between yourself and those in the field of geography who create maps to be published in data books?

DW has argued since the 1980s that maps are not just representations, but also political tools. Their purpose is to promote a certain agenda and make persuasive arguments.

Despite this idea having been broadly accepted by now, there are still many cartographers who cannot get past the notion of maps as just representations. When DW brings up the idea of maps not being representations at a meeting, it is usually the first question asked.

A lot of people don’t want to admit any involvement in the current state of affairs, and maps have a lot to do with it. They would rather pretend that their hands are clean, saying it’s “just a tool”.

However, it is possible to both do bad and good things with a tool. I have suggested to the most critical people that they could make a strong argument by simply recognizing the fact that they are creating the world.

But they recoil in horror at the thought, as they are still making the software that lets them make the world. Some of the best analyses of how maps work were done by those who are creating machines to make maps.

If someone kills a bunch of kids using a map that someone made, they must either accept responsibility for it, or decide that they can’t do it anymore.

BLVR: In the maps featured in Everything Sings, the terrain is more personal than one used in warfare. I’m interested to know if the making of these maps ever had an emotional impact on you.

It makes sense that some of the maps could be intimidating since they illustrate information you gathered in regards to the area where you resided.

DW: The issue with constructing the map is that by the time you decide what is data, collect it and process it to the point you can make a map, you’re already aware of the worst possible outcome.

In my case, I was aware prior to mapping that I would be charting wind chimes – though it may come as a surprise to see them mapped, it wouldn’t be an unexpected shock.

I have come across some maps that are truly frightening. For example, the uranium mining and health issues in the Navajo reservation are outrageous, making one feel indignant.

Bill Bunge created a map that I still consider to be a remarkable one; it depicted the locations where white commuters in Detroit had caused the deaths of African American children as they drove back home from work.

Acquiring the necessary data for this map was a struggle, as they had to apply political pressure to get the time and exact place of the mishaps. Upon seeing this map for the first time, I was astonished.

It is certainly a powerful image to see maps like this, and I believe that it is one of the advantages of maps: to make unmistakable and irrefutable correlations.

We were already aware of people traveling to and from work, but the combination of the two facts unveils something dreadful.

You mentioned it was an argument, correct?

DW remarked that maps are “like nude pictures of reality,” and thus do not resemble arguments. He then discussed the power of reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases, which are often seen as imparting “the truth.”

DW concluded by noting that these reference works are in fact arguments, and that this is how culture is spread from generation to generation – with children internalizing the messages about the world that these works provide.

Could Be Interesting To You

The impact of video games on children has been a controversial topic for many years. People have argued that playing video games can have a negative effect on young people, developing habits of aggression and desensitization.

On the other hand, some believe that video games can provide a beneficial outlet for children.


The effects of video gaming on minors has been a subject of debate for quite some time.

Some maintain that playing video games can be detrimental to a child’s growth, cultivating aggressive tendencies and a lack of sensitivity.

Conversely, there are those who feel that video games can be a beneficial form of entertainment for kids.

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