I love maps. I’m particularly fascinated by maps that, instead of the usual cities or roads, describe more unexpected characteristics. Like this map showing the geography of how many times people kiss each other on the cheek when greeting each other in France:
It all started with The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Rief Larsen. T.S. Spivet is a boy obsessed with drawing maps and diagrams and appropriately his drawings alongside the text form part of the plot of the story. The concept is executed well and I really enjoyed the book, even if the ending was a bit far-fetched. It would have been a memorable book regardless, but what happened next is what made it special to me.
A few months later I was listening to a wonderful story on the Selected Shorts podcast, “The Mappist” by Barry Lopez. Corlis Benefideo, the mappist of the title, is working on a series of maps telling the history of North Dakota:
“I could show you here the whole coming and going of the Mandan nation, wiped out in eighteen thirty-seven by a smallpox epidemic. I could show you how the arrival of German and Scandanavian farmers changed the composition of the topsoil, and the places where Charles Bodmer painted, and the evolution of red-light districts in Fargo.”
Suddenly I realized that Corlis Benefideo shows up in The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet also. T.S Spivet promises Benefideo that he will produce an equivalent series of maps for his home state of Montana. I was pleased with myself for discovering the connection, particularly since “The Mappist” features the story’s narrator slowly recognizing the connections between the books and maps that Corlis Benefideo published under a variety of pseudonyms.
Ever since, I’ve kept an eye out for other examples of mapmakers telling stories. I’ve found a few intriguing things along the way, but last month I struck gold. Via the radio show This American Life, I discovered Everything Sings: A Narrative Atlas by Denis Wood. Everything Sings is a set of maps of Wood’s neighborhood, Boylan Heights, North Carolina. Some of my favorites document the postman’s route through the neighborhood, the graffiti on sidewalks, and the pools of light produced by streetlamps.
As you can see from the map of neighborhood jack-o-lanterns on the cover of the book, most of the maps leave out the most common feature of maps- streets. The absence of a street grid was disorienting at first, but eventually I started to see that leaving out the streets made me see the maps differently and focus on the featured trait itself, rather than referencing each trait by how it related to the streets.
In the book’s introduction, Denis Wood argues that maps aren’t purely objective. They all present a particular agenda in what they choose to show. In Everything Sings Wood’s agenda includes issues of socioeconomic class and also quite a lot about trees. Fully a quarter of the maps feature trees- trees by size, trees by age, a map of fall colors, and even an openly indignant map showing trees with branches cut to clear power lines. Together, all the maps really do combine into a story about a neighborhood and also a work of art. I think Corlis Benefideo would have appreciated it.
As a bonus, in the process of writing this post I discovered that the North American Cartographic Information Society has just inaugurated the Corlis Benefideo Award for imaginative cartography. I love it that a short story character was an inspiration to a real society of mapmakers and I can’t wait to learn about the winner of the first award. Wouldn’t it all tie together perfectly if the winner were Everything Sings?