How a Mapmaker Who Rejects Cartography Can Help You Find Yourself 

First, Denis Wood recommends getting lost: "We fight to maintain our sense of location in time and space."

Denis Wood

Whether you’ll admit it or not, it’s fairly common to wonder — in anxiety’s throes, the solitude of a dark bedroom, and possibly your entire 20s — something along the lines of: How do I find myself? It may not be in those words, and it may not be so well-defined, but it remains common to ponder one’s place in life, one’s metaphorical location. Inverse turned to Denis Wood for help.

It wouldn’t exactly be accurate to call Denis a cartographer; it is, however, safe to say that he thinks and writes about maps for a living. He’s got a collection of “literally tens of thousands of maps” in his home, he says, but the maps he makes himself are…atypical, to say the least. Wood’s maps resemble none of the maps you’ve ever seen before: in them, Wood hones in on the obscure, the unobvious, the heretofore unmappable.

In his own words: “I’ve never really thought about myself as a mapmaker.”

Denis was the subject of a film, released last year, called 'Unmappable.'

Denis Wood

No less, as an opinionated map collector and scholar who willingly lingers on the fringes of the cartographic world, Inverse thought Denis might have something to say regarding some of these tough existential questions. But first, he had to get his head on the right track.

How does your approach to cartography differ from other approaches? Has it always so differed, or are you well versed in traditional cartographic methods, too?

Well, I have a Ph.D. in geography. And I took a lot of cartography as a graduate student. I loathed the subject. I thought it was hidebound and retrograde and stupid — as a discipline about making maps. As a discipline about making a very particular, narrow kind of map, you know, it did its job. But it wasn’t about making maps. It was about making maps for the Defense Mapping Agency and the United States Geological Survey. They weren’t really about making maps for anybody else.

Portions of a handful of Denis's maps.

How comfortable would you be navigating a region that you yourself had mapped?

If I had made a map of a place, how would I feel about navigating with it? It would be terrible! The maps I make are of, by and large, esoteric and strange things. Mine aren’t about wayfinding.

There are, like, two streams, or three streams, in mainstream cartography writing and thinking. One of them is that maps are all about finding your way. And that’s never been the case. Most maps — as we know maps — came into existence after, let’s say, 1500. So, before 1500, people who wandered around the globe — as we know, out of Africa, to the tip of South America, among other places — they did it without maps. And they’ve done it without maps for thousands of years. Maps are not essential to wayfinding or important to wayfinding. They are useful if you’re sailing a boat, you want to know where the harbor is, and you can’t see it. So it’s not about coastwise sailing, which is pretty much what people did.

The need for the map is dependent on the kind of transportation modes that we have. You’re gonna want a map if you’re trying to get someplace at a certain time. In that sense, they’re useful. But most people, for most of human history, haven’t had to do that.

I guess that’s one way of looking at it. You said there were two or three streams of thought with respect to cartography, though?

Okay, so there’s one — that it’s about wayfinding. Another is that it’s about accuracy and precision increasing with time. Maps, in this version of the story, used to be woeful. Now they’re fabulous. In fact, we’ve reached the acme of mapping perfection. And that story is as much of a bunch of crock as the maps-are-wayfinding-tools story is.

Maps are really about taxation: They’re about locating people’s property and assigning them a code so that you can send a tax bill to their address. That’s when they first appear in human history. They’re some Babylonian property maps. They don’t last for long — I mean, this little Babylonian thing rises and falls, and after it falls the mapping tradition is not continued. But, that’s where we find maps. Maps are great record-keeping tools. In the 15th, 16th century, when maps began to appear, they began to appear as ways of understanding floods, water levels, grazing rights for sheep. This is what they were about, and this is what they’re really good for. Their use as wayfinding devices, such as we now find on every single website. That’s a novelty. So, that’s sort of the second shibboleth.

An ancient Babylonian map, carved circa 5th century BC.

Flickr (Katy Tzaralunga)

The third one is that maps are pictures of the way the world is. Nothing could be further from the truth — which I’ve demonstrated as many ways as one can think to name. If they are pictures of the world, they’re terrible pictures. They’re very selective, to begin with, and if you’re not looking at the aspects of the world that the mapmaker has decided to map, it’s not going to look like anything to you. It’s not going to be useful in any way. It’s certainly not going to look like what the world looks like when you use your eyes.

So, it’s neither this ever-increasing miracle of perfection and accuracy and precision, nor is it a wayfinding tool, nor is it a picture of the world. Those are the three main arguments that have been made about maps since people began writing about maps (which is, you know, the last 250 years).

And so where does that leave you?

Well, thinking about maps as they actually are!

Can you summarize your personal philosophy on the function of maps?

Maps are arguments about the way we think the world should be or could be. They are arguments made in graphic form. The argument says that “At such-and-such a location, you will find this thing.” It doesn’t say what else you will find in that location, but it says, “You will find this thing there. You will find this parcel of property.” Which, if you go and look at it with your eyes, you can’t see. We do not see, as we walk down the sidewalk, property lines. They’re not there. They’re on a map. And the map is the device that maintains that record and enables it to be utilized by the government to tax us, or by lawyers to fight over infringements or encroachments on the property.

So, that’s one of the central things that they are — well, that’s what they are. They’re all arguments. Every map that ever existed is an argument.

That’s a really cool way of looking at it.

Why, thank you. I think it is too. Although I have friends in the cartography game who say, “You know, I’ve never really bought into your idea of the map as an argument.” And then they go nattering on about locational accuracy.

So are you making maps that are non-argumentative, or …

No, no, no. Mine are all arguments, too. But they are arguments about a very peculiar set of subjects.

In the This American Life episode, you said, at some point: “There isn’t anything that you can’t map. There isn’t anything that doesn’t have some spatial character.”


So, you still agree with that?

Yeah. We exist in a four-dimensional manifold, one of which is time. The other three are locational indices. So everything that is is in some space. Even if it’s a big, amorphous thing, like the rapture for some singer tomorrow. And that exists some place — it doesn’t exist nowhere. It exists some place, and you can map it. You can map all of the tweets that proclaim her importance and significance and wonderfulness. You can map those. And you see that, in fact, her fame is limited to, you know, the United States, and Australia, and part of Western Europe, and a couple of islands in the rest of the universe. And you can see that. That has a locational reality. It’s useful if you want to market stuff, because now you know where to target your records.

Alright — now I’m going to challenge you a bit on your “map anything” idea. Do you think that the principles or methods of cartography can inform the age-old question of how to find yourself?

Finding oneself is such a metaphysical, bogus idea. And, first of all, the “methods and principles of cartography” are a hilarious jumble of by-and-large nonsense. But I understand: can mapping help you find yourself. Yeah, I think it can!

You could do a sequence of maps: You could map yourself at your computer, you could map yourself in your room, you could map yourself in your home or your apartment or your office. You can make a map of places you habitually go, and look at your “habitus,” as some social scientists call it. And you can expand from that. You can make a map of where in the world you’ve been, you can make a map of where in the world you’ve been at various times in your life and see how it’s changed over time. You can see how little of the world you know, you can see how little of the city you know — which is, I think, for most people, a complete shock, because they all think, “Oh, I know the city.” Well, of course, they don’t have a clue about the city. They know this little piece of the city that they wander around in. So, I think mapping would be a wonderful way to approach the question of where I am. No matter how metaphysically you wanted to do that.

Map of the internet.


And there are all these people who make all these other kinds of maps. They take the idea of making a map and they expand it from space to making a map of a problem, or making a map of social networks — and they don’t mean a map of where the people in your social network live or are, they just mean a map of the network. Or a map of the internet. And again, they’re not talking about where the servers are located, or where the computers are located, they’re talking about, you know, other things. And if you think about that as mapping, well, obviously, the whole question of where I am is meat for their game.

Do you think that you could take both methods and create something that looks like a geographical map but that really represents who you are as a person rather than where you are?

You know, I used to collect drawings of that nature. I have a bunch of them that proclaim to be both geographic maps and maps of selves. But they’re really maps of selves; they’re not maps of geographic places. And then there are all those allegorical maps from the 19th century, and into the 20th century, where people mapped, you know, the River of Heartache flowing through the Plain of Despair, and so forth and so on. So, maps have been used to do that kind of thing, and they clearly can be used to do that kind of thing. I’m not sure where we are is a — well, it’s an interesting question.

A map of temperance from 1838 by John Wiltberger, Jr.

Wikimedia Commons

Would you ever be interested in making something like that?

Making a map of where I am?

Or who you are — I mean, any sort of allegorical map. I guess you have, right? To some extent?

Well, I’ve collected them from groups of students. I’ve just given them an assignment that says “Please draw a map of who you are, or what you are.” And then you get these results, and some of them look like maps, and some of them are literally maps with arrows to various places that they go to or come from, and some are diagrams in the most classic sense of the word “diagram.” Some are picture-diagram-map jumbles. So, there are all these kinds of things.

I remember when I was in the fourth grade, drawing on the cover of my notebook: me, and putting me in a circle, and then a circle around me, and that would say “Cleveland,” and then a circle for Ohio, and then the United States, and then North America, the western hemisphere, the northern hemisphere, and the northwestern quadrant, or whatever — right out all the way to the solar system, to the galaxy. Now that’s a spatial image of where I am, and how I’m situated. I’m not sure it’s a map. Well, I mean, you could think about it as a map. I’m not going to.

Eastern and Western Hemispheres, 1883.


Above my desk in the office, there’s a geologic map of the west side of the moon. Here’s a description that I found on there that I thought sounded pretty funny. “Knobby facies — Knobby, hummocky, smooth, rolling, disordered appearing materials with irregular grooves and depressions between individual knobs.”

That is certainly classic geologic talk. They’re trying to describe this physical thing, trying to describe what’s there. And what kind of language do we have for describing rocks?

Would someone be able to use similar language to describe, say, a particular, metaphorical terrain he or she might encounter within his- or herself, or within someone else?

It’s the same story as with the maps. These 19th century allegorists loved to do things like that. The mountain was always the unattainable — or, attainable — goal. It was the end of the quest, and the quest was always metaphysical. It was marriage, or home, or family, or a job, or whatever. And then you would draw a route through a landscape of various perils or opportunities, and, you know, it’s like playing Chutes and Ladders. And they use the height to represent good things and they use the low points to represent bad things. Only it’s a map that looks like a map, but that’s not really a map: it’s an opportunity surface of some kind.

"The Open Country of Woman's Heart," by "A Lady," from the 1830s.

"The Fortified Country of Man's Heart," by "A Lady," from the 1830s.

If I’m feeling mentally lost, what would you — as a cartographer — advise me to do?

Mentally lost. Well, I would — as a cartographer — say, I really need to know what this “lost” is. Are we talking mentally lost in a problem, or are we talking mentally lost in an existential life sense, or are we talking lost… And then, once we had that nailed, I might be able to suggest some cartographic approaches to your feeling lost. If you were literally lost — that is to say, if you were lost in space and time — I think a map might be very useful to you. So it depends.

Can we run with one of those examples? Let’s say I’m feeling existentially lost.

Oh, man. Shy of those allegorical maps… That runs counter to the whole premise behind a map, which is that we can find things and we can locate them, and we can locate them in space and time. And if you’re existentially lost, well, you’re lost. I remember, as a graduate student, developing something I called “the lost thesis.” It was about the importance of the sense of losing your way in the organization of human activities. And I elaborated at some length. I don’t know what ever happened — nothing ever happened; I never did anything with it.

Well, do you care to elaborate here?

There’s quite a history of people interested in getting lost. For example, the Surrealists liked to get lost. The Situationists — whether lost was an important goal or not — were flirting with lost, frequently. And others have been interested in being lost.

Sometimes you just want to not know where you are, and you just want to wander around, be completely unshackled from, you know, the expectations of your environment. So there is an interest in that that is quite prominent.

And there’s a huge fear of being lost on the part of society in general, which is what drives the endless, endless, endless quantity of signs and mnemonic devices and timekeeping devices. We are going to know exactly where we are — exactly where we are — at every second of any moment that we’re alive. This is what the wonderful GPS people are carrying around in their pockets is so good for. It’ll tell you the time, you know, it’ll tell you the exact part of a second that you’re in, and it will tell you exactly where you are, within 10 meters, on the face of the planet.

There’s clearly a huge anxiety about being lost, and a great sense of comfort that comes from being found. And this is, of course, one of the classic arguments about mapmaking: that mapmaking is about finding yourself, in as many senses as you possibly can.

Banky's "Mobile Lovers."


I think being lost goes back to our experience of life. We come into the world, we have no idea where we are. Well, we’re nowhere. And, gradually, as we grow up, we discover the world. If we continue to grow, we continue to discover the world. And if we don’t, we stop with what we’ve got. But the last thing we want to do is go back to where we were in the beginning. So, we fight to maintain our sense of location in time and space. We surround ourselves with markers that say “This is where I am, this is where I’ve been, this is where I’m going; this is the time it was yesterday, this is the time today, the time tomorrow” — we want to know where we are. We don’t want to be lost.

But you were implying that you valued getting lost.

Getting lost is extremely useful. It’s disorienting! And we go back to another map term: orientation. Being disoriented opens up possibilities that you would not have been able to imagine. Because there you are, on the map, and you can see where you are. And if you throw the map away, you don’t know where you are. Not knowing where you are opens up possibilities for you — to find where you are, and, in the process of finding where you are, to find all sorts of other things. Being lost is useful. It can be terrifying if you’re freezing to death, and you can’t see where you’re going because the snow is blinding — you know, it can be terrifying. That’s another reason a lot of people want to do anything to avoid being lost. It can be very, very scary. But being scared is something we obviously enjoy, or we wouldn’t go to see horror movies in the huge numbers that we do.

I like the idea of intentionally getting lost. That could tie back around, too, to finding yourself, as you were suggesting.

It’s hard to do. You know, it’s hard to get lost. Many times people might say, “Hey, get lost!” It’s interesting to imagine what they think they mean by that when they say that. They just mean “go away,” but why “get lost”?

I’d say that that was some wonderful speculation. Thanks for that. I was wondering if you had any thoughts as to what question I should’ve asked you.

[Laughing] About what?

Either in general or about what we’ve been talking about.

Well, I have to say, this has been a very pleasurable interview in that it’s not about what they’re usually about. Usually they just want to know about mapping. When I first made a map, when I first saw a map, and how the mapping thing grew. They’re frequently — well, almost always — uninteresting. Dull as dishwater. And you’ve gotta really exert yourself to inject any kind of interest into the process. So, this wasn’t like that. This was a different kind of interview.

And no: I have no idea what you should’ve asked me. What a preposterous question!

Related Tags