Terrifying Maps: Radical Cartographer Denis Wood and the Truth

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(image Denis Dutton, Siglio Press)

Denis Wood: The problem with making the map is that by the time you’ve decided, “This is something that constitutes data,” and you’ve collected it, and you’ve massaged it to the point where you can make a map out of it, you already know the worst that’s going to come out of the map. When you’re working at the scale I’m working at, you’ve already decided up front that you’re going to record locations of wind chimes. Now, it might be somewhat of a revelation to actually map them out, but it’s not going to be shocking or anything.

But I’ve seen maps that I find completing terrifying. Maps of uranium mining and of various illnesses in the Navajo reservations—they’re just insane. They just make you furious. Bill Bunge’s map—which I still think is one of the great maps, the map of where white commuters in Detroit killed black children while going home from work—that’s a terrifying map, and that’s an amazing map. He knew that. They had to fight to get the data from the city. They had to use political pressure to get the time and the exact location of the accidents that killed these kids. They knew what they were looking for. I didn’t have anything to do with that project, so when I saw the map for the first time, it was like, “Oh my god.” It’s so powerful to see maps like that. That’s the power of maps, or one of the powers of maps: to make graphic—and at some level unarguable—some correlative truth. We all knew that people go to and from work. But to lay the two things together reveals something horrible.

–excerpted from a great interview with seminal geographer Denis Wood at Guernica, part of Wood’s new, utterly singular book from Siglio Press, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas