This is a description of an avant la lettre deep mapping project carried out by a geographer and a number of landscape architecture students in the early 1980s. Although humanists seem to take the “mapping” in deep mapping more metaphorically than cartographically, in this neighborhood mapping project, the mapmaking was taken literally, with the goal of producing an atlas of the neighborhood. In this, the neighborhood was construed as a transformer, turning the stuff of the world (gas, water, electricity) into the stuff of individual lives (sidewalk graffiti, wind chimes, barking dogs), and vice versa. Maps in the central transformer section of the atlas were to have charted this process in action, as in one showing the route of an individual newspaper into the neighborhood, then through the neighborhood to a home, and finally, as trash, out of the neighborhood in a garbage truck; though few of these had been completed when the project concluded in 1986. Resurrected in 1998 in an episode on Ira Glass’ This American Life, the atlas was finally published, as Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, in 2010 (and an expanded edition in 2013).
Deep maps, deep mapping…
Yes, yes, but such a strange name for the practice. A practice that so often delivers far, far less than it promises. Especially maps. So many instances of deep mapping lack any at all.
Why mapping? Why not…thick description? Oh. Maybe because deep mapping is about place, while thick description is about…behavior? But aren’t the two all mixed up together? Isn’t that what deep mapping is supposed to be about—at least one of the things it’s supposed to be about—the unfolding of human life here, the mutual relations of people and soil and plants and animals and…go on, you name it…here in this…place?
Well, obviously I’m just trying to figure out why they call it deep mapping, when mapping isn’t what they are about, at all. They’re storytellers mostly, which is great, but mostly they’re not mappers. I’m talking about almost all of them, from William Least Heat-Moon to the most recent anthology of work on spatial narratives.
Not that you can’t tell stories with maps. You can. In fact, every map tells a story, stories actually, many of them. Even maps that people who don’t know much about maps call thin maps tell stories, ordinary, taken-for-granted maps, like highway maps, like the state highway map of North Carolina that John Fels and I spent fifty pages writing about back in 1986, and whose surface we barely scratched [1,2]. Thin maps…
Maps are models of concision, especially the ordinary taken-for-granted ones, cramming so many layers—so much history—into each line, into this line, for instance, this county border, the border of Wake County, first drawn in 1771 when the county was laid out of from parts of previously existing counties, but redrawn in 1787, 1881 and 1911, and named after Margaret Wake in 1771, the wife of William Tryon, then the colonial governor of North Carolina. All of this and so much more are caught up in that line that looks so simple but is anything but. And there’re a hundred counties on this highway map of North Carolina, which also sports state borders, coasts, highways, roads, cities, towns, parks, reservations, military bases, forests and other things. This map is not simple, this map. It’s not thin. It’s deep and thick. Most maps are like this.
A lot of them wield power too, great power. We think about maps as being representations of the world, but they’re not. They’re arguments about the world, and many of these arguments are serious. “High court to hear map challenge in August” reads the headline to an article on the second page of yesterday’s News and Observer . A couple of days earlier, the lead editorial had been headed: “Rule on maps: the N.C. Supreme Court must quickly resolve a challenge to redistricting maps.” . These maps are about who gets to vote in which districts, that is, are about whether Democrats or Republicans will reign in state government. This has huge consequences for the distribution of wealth, education, health, you name it.
Let’s not even think about the problems with immigration caused by the lines called national borders; or about the lines that bound school districts.
Some have more power than others, but all maps have it.
1. My Fight with Maps
My fight with maps, actually with cartography, was ignited by their rejection of modernism. As modernism was noisily turning its back on the failed rationalities, on the empty harmonies, on the make-believe coherences of Enlightenment, of Victorian thinking, cartography was clutching them ever more tightly to its breast. Painters may have been deconstructing pictorial space, composers shredding inherited tonalities, architects stripping walls of pilasters, cornices, and dentil moldings, poets following Pound’s cry to “Make it new”, and novelists indulging a self-consciousness that was all but the hallmark of the age, but cartographers, they were content to hone, to polish, to extend inherited forms.
Cartography exalted its unreflective empiricism as its raison d’être. It cherished the graphic conventions it had laid down in the 19th century. Even today, few maps acknowledge the 19th century’s over. This, despite the fact maps were never what they were claimed to be, never what the map themselves claimed to be: veridical and value-free pictures of reality. They were always arguments about the way the maps’ makers—or about the way those who paid the maps’ makers—thought the world should be.
With modernism came a predisposition for resistance and smashing traditional forms, for going someplace stripped down, someplace essential, someplace real, for asking, Why not? I long felt around for a new map that wasn’t of the same old subjects, that didn’t have the same old forms, that looked and felt modern. Schoenberg wanted to emancipate the dissonance. Arp wanted to destroy existing modes of making art. Fifty years later, I wanted to destroy the existing ways of making maps through which millions were subjugated, herded, and all too often killed. I wanted to emancipate dream and desire as subjects of the map.
Hard to do in geography: it was nearly as hidebound as cartography.
But when I found myself teaching landscape architecture studios in the School of Design at North Carolina State University, I found my opportunity. I knew nothing about landscape architecture. I knew less about studios, about how they worked, about what they were supposed to do. However, I figured landscape architects needed to know something about the environment in which they were working, and I figured that making maps might be a good way to learn—to discover—what it was they needed to know. So I set the first studio I taught—well, I set the students—the task of mapping a nearby neighborhood. The thing was, these were design students. They were undergraduate design students.
They had had little professional training (they weren’t hidebound). They were wildly creative (which is why they had entered the School of Design). They knew nothing about the conventions of making maps (they were blank slates). So when I set them tasks like mapping sounds, or making maps from the perspective of bees, or constructing maps out of food they leaped at them like, like frolicking gazelles! They were all over these projects. They made the most amazing things.
I kept none of the maps. I mean, there were always more studios, more students, more maps. However, in a studio I co-taught with Robin Moore in the spring of 1982, we decided to make an atlas, a neighborhood atlas, an atlas we could reproduce on a copy machine, that we could distribute to the neighbors when we had finished. This meant the work had to make sense in black and white (in the early 1980s, color copy machines barely existed, and landscape architecture students loved to use colored markers), and it had to make sense to the neighbors (and so not be completely off-the-wall). This did not mean it had to be mapmaking the way these grad students had come to know it (and they were much more hidebound than the undergrads). That I was adamant about. But it didn’t matter what they were mapping: I couldn’t get them to leave the streets off their maps.
I was trying to get them to map the way the land smelled, the way it felt in their legs when they walked it, the way twilight made all the difference. I wasn’t sure what the streets had to do with any of these, but the streets were an irreducible subject in the eyes of these students, the whatever-it-was that made the neighborhood a neighborhood. If you’re going to be laying out subdivisions, which a lot of these students would be doing professionally, streets are really all you have to play with. I got that, but at the same time, the streets did seem to inhibit the other qualities I was trying to draw the students’ attentions to. No matter how far into the background they intended the streets to recede, somehow they always stood out front.
Then, once when we were working on a map of streetlights, we just kept paring away the non-streetlights. We dumped the map crap (the neat line, the scale, the north arrow), the neighborhood boundaries, and the topography. Finally, we dumped the streets: first the scaled streets, then a schematic grid of the streets, finally even a hint of a grid of the streets. Daylight went too—that default daylight that most maps take for granted—so that we were fooling around with circles of white on a black background. That’s when it became clear that the map wasn’t about lamp posts, but about lamp light, and light was something we weren’t sure how to deal with. Certainly, the uniform white circles we’d been drawing caught nothing of the way the light was fringed by the trees; and one night, armed with a camera, we scaled a fence and climbed a radio tower on the edge of the neighborhood hoping to catch the night lights on film. What a disappointment. The view from above was nothing like walking in and out of the pools of dappled light on the streets below. But I had a pochoir brush at home and when Carter Crawford—who had put himself in charge of atlas graphics—used it to draw the circles, it was magical (Figure 1). Nothing but blotches of white: that was the way it felt to be walking the streets at night.
The usual “efficient” map would have located everything on the street onto a single sheet—that is, different marks for lamp posts, fire hydrants, street signs, trees. Our inefficient map concentrated on a single subject and rather than lamp posts, it brought the pools of light into view. No legend, no north arrow, no neat line, none of the usual apparatus. At last: a modernist feel! Maybe even a sense of poetry, something imagistic, a little like Pound’s “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough”  or Williams’s red wheel barrow, but as it might manifest on a map, a map attentive to the experience of place .
That’s when I knew we could write poems in maps. That’s when I began thinking seriously about a poetics of cartography.
2. Making Maps
Once we got to this point, we started wanting to map everything. …