Mapping Your World

topo NJ

nj map

I have always loved maps. As a kid, I collected them. I have road maps that they used to hand out at gas stations, fancy topographic maps that I didn’t quite understand at the time, and ones that were inside novels. I also started to draw my own maps.

I have written here about maps before, so I don’t want to down those same roads again. But I came upon another map lover. Denis Wood is an artist, author, poet, cartographer and is best known for his book The Power of Maps which was considered pretty radical when it was published.

It was called part of the “new cartographies” and papers were written about maps as “socially constructed arguments” and things like semiotic codes were thrown into the conversation.

I first heard about him on This American Life and what interested me in Wood was that he obviously loves maps and loves to make maps that often don’t look like what many people would consider to be a map.

What if you drew a map of your neighborhood and it focused on basketball hoops, barbecue’s and swing sets? You would have a very different kind of map.

One of the radical things about this book is that he looks at areas where many maps don’t go and he looks at things like a  mapmaker’s bias. The power part of the book is his examination of the ways maps are not impartial. They are ways to communicate and persuade and that gives them power.

He compares them to paintings. But he doesn’t just mean the art of maps (which is what attracted me to them as a kid) but because they express a point of view.

Of course, I love the illustrations and examples, even though some of the maps are not beautiful and don’t try to be. Examples range from Peter Gould’s AIDS map, Tom Van Sant’s map of the earth, U.S. Geological Survey maps, and a child’s drawing of the world.

Plenty of other people have taken this do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to mapping their own part of the world in unusual ways.  I have read articles about this that say that maps do not  “represent” reality. They represent nothing. But, they are someone’s argument about the world created through their choices of content and how they arrange it graphically at a specific scale.

One of Denis Wood’s projects has been an atlas of the Boylan Heights neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s been working on it since the mid 1970s. I don’t believe the atlas has been published in its entirety (the working title seems to be Dancing and Singing: A Narrative Atlas of Boylan Heights) but there are many of the map images online. Some of the place-inspired maps show crime, fences, graffiti, textures, autumn leaves, sewer pipes, lines overhead, stars, and jack-o-lanterns on the steps of homes.

Some of these might sound silly, frivolous, a waste of time. What can a map of jack-o-lanterns tell us about a town or neighborhood? Is it a map about the ages of the residents, where children live, or affluence?  That’s part of the idea of this mapping.

Boylan Heights, North Carolina, 1974, size of the circles indicates the number of times a household was mentioned in the community newsletter.

One thesis in this kind of mapping is examining how we construct the world we see. What are our perspectives or lenses? What are the scales we use to measure it?

Wood has already written a sequel with Rethinking the Power of Maps. I haven’t read that one yet, but online descriptions say it describes how cartography facilitated the rise of the modern state but also the limitations of mapping practices.  I probably will enjoy the illustrations even more than the text: U.S. Geological Survey maps, electoral and transportation maps and the newer participatory mapping and map art.

How would you see your world on paper?

Some Sources

Cabin Dwellers

I encountered Lou Ureneck online with his From the Ground UpNew York Times blog, which was a memoir about building and brotherhood.

There is also a book about the experience.  After middle age-job loss, the death of his mother, a health scare, and a divorce, Ureneck looked for some project to engage him back into the world. He had been a city dweller for a decade and decided that he needed to build a simple cabin in the woods. He bought five acres in the hills of western Maine and asked his younger brother, Paul, to help him.

He is not the first person to have a book come from that experience. We think of Henry David Thoreau and Walden first. There’s also Louise Dickinson Rich who wrote fiction and non-fiction works about New England, particularly Massachusetts and Maine. Her best-known work is her first book, We Took to the Woods, set in the 1930s when she and her husband Ralph, and her friend and hired help Gerrish, lived in a remote cabin near Lake Umbagog. It is described as “a witty account of a Thoreau-like existence in a wilderness home.

Lou Ureneck’s Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine  fits nicely on that bookshelf.

He may have new to building a cabin, but he was not new to writing. He was a journalism professor at Boston University and a former newspaper editor at the Portland Press Herald in Maine and the Philadelphia Inquirer. His first book, Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-fishing, and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska, received the 2007 National Outdoor Book Award. And, the brothers had also built a house together 20 years before.

Building the cabin was a way to reconnect to his life, nature and his brother. It sounds like it should have been easy to build the cabin after building a house, and they had the help of Paul’s sons. But the construction turned out to be challenging and nothing seems to go according to plan.

The complications are also about building family relationships. Yes, there is a healing power in nature. Yes, you do need to set roots and have a place to call home.

See photos of the cabin being built

It wasn’t really planned that I would write this Memorial Day weekend about all these people trying to get away and find themselves. But I had gotten all these books in a bunch. And this is a summer when I am coming to the end of my current academic job.

I don’t know what I;; be doing this fall. And part of me would like to just pack up my office and head out into the woods to build that cabin I keep thinking and writing about.

I have been armchair building and traveling for years. It was accidental that the books I wrote about this weekend all seem to focus on Maine. I have friends (also educators) who own property in Maine and they escape from New Jersey every summer to their rustic pond-side places.

The final book in that pile I brought home is also set in Maine. Eva Murray took a job on Matinicus Island in 1987 and expected to stay a year as the island’s K-8 teacher. But when the school year ended, she turned down her graduate school acceptance, remained on Matinicus, and in 1989 married the island’s electrician. She and her husband Paul raised their two children on Matinicus and continue to live and work there (as an EMT) full time.Her book is Well Out to Sea: Year-Round on Matinicus Island. Though it might be cataloged along with the other simple life, off the grid, farewell to the 21st century books, her life is hardly simple. She writes essays about the land and the people, who are (as Emerson would say) self-reliant.

Now, to put all those books aside and start building something myself this summer.

Living Small


Readers of this blog know I have an interest in the DIY of cabins and treehouses and such. I see them as retreats from the regular Monday to Friday life. This past week I came across several articles about a variation on that idea which is sometimes called “micro houses.” They are more than getaways. They are very mall homes where people live all week.

The first article I came across was about homes in Japan. That makes sense because we know that space is at a premium in Japan and they have always been masters of packing things into small spaces – from electronics to bonsai. It doesn’t seem very DIY in Japan since many of the homes started being built by major builders in th e late 1990s. There seems to be a market for living small there for these units, known as kyo-sho-jutaku in Japanese.

One of the early homes was built on a 249 sq. ft. site (a big parking space) in Tokyo. They built a five-story home on the site. That seems excessive.

A Japanese factory has developed aluminum, cube-like frames called tsubomi that can be arranged into stand-alone homes or used as attachments to existing houses. A 27 cubic meter (952 cu. ft.) attachment costs $17,000 and can be assembled in a single day.

But a little research seems to indicate that Susan Saranka gets has been credited with starting this movement toward smaller houses with her 1997 book The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live.

Apparently, I’ve missed all this because she has a bunch of books and has been on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Charlie Rose and in the The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal et al.

Her writing has gone beyond homes to The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters

Back to homes though…

I found an article about an artist-builder who lives in a  96-square foot house in California. He started out wanting less of everything – including less of an impact on the Earth – and tried living in an Airstream trailer. That wasn’t really practical for the Iowa winter he tried to get through.

The movement is also big in Europe.  The structures are called Micro Compact Homes, or m-ch in the way they are developed by the University of Munich.

These micro-homes fit on plots that represent the garage space of the McMansions that started appearing in the U.S thirty years ago.

The movement got traction with architects and home design magazines. The Japanese model is extravagant for what I would want to consider building.

A budget in Japan of $170,000 USD for a 3-level home on a plot that measured only 32 square meters (or 344 sq. ft.) is a too much. Yes, it would have a spiral staircase, living space on the ground floor, living room, kitchen, and bedroom on the second and sleeping quarters on the top floor with access to a wood deck.

On the other extreme, Yamaha (the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instruments) sells soundproof rooms that to put into existing homes or to add one that are 1.4 meters wide, 1.8 meters in depth, 2 meters high for $3,700.

But before you stop reading, consider the more American style cottages under 1,000 square feet that are being built as second homes and getaways that are less than a regular house but an upgrade from the rustic cabin.

The Tower Studio pictured here is a small cabin with a garage on the lower level and a living unit on the second floor. A stove keeps things warm and you can have a view from your tower.

These designs get creative with the channeling of light and the way walls, hallways, and windows are designed and try to avoid using artificial lighting for as much of the day and night as possible.

It still would be tough to convince my wife that one of these could be our retirement home.

But I guess what I like about the movement is the philosophy of living smaller. A trend towards smaller would be worthwhile even if the result was not that we all started living in micro-houses, but that downsizing homes and building them more efficiently became the trend.

Want to know more?

Video from National Geographic of The Penguin House which uses innovative engineering and architectural design to achieve a better use of space.

The Architecture of Daydreams

There is a book by Michael Pollan that mixes several of my interests.  Perhaps the title alone gives you some clues as to those interests – A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams.

The primary reason he wrote it was to chronicle his experiences building a little “writing house.” Readers of this blog know my interest in  building my own little cabin.  He also references one of my writing and cabin gurus – Henry David Thoreau and his Walden home.

Thoreau is an inspiration for Pollan, but more unlikely is a connection to a corny movie that I like a lot.  Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a 1948 American comedy film starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy based on a novel by Eric Hodgins.

Michael Pollan is best known for his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. That book changed a lot of  its readers’ way of thinking about the food they buy and eat. It looks at industrial farming, organic food (both as big business and on a small farm) and also what it’s like to hunt and gather food for oneself.  He also examines meals for each area – a cheeseburger and fries from McDonald’s, chicken, vegetables and salad from Whole Foods, a meal from a sustainable farm and  mushrooms and pork, foraged from the wild.

A Place of My Own has the same kind of detail about the actual construction process – maybe more than some readers want to know.  Pollan is good in all his writing about connecting our experiences – eating, gardening,  building – with the larger world. This book is an earlier book of his.  His “place” is a small, wooden hut that he wants as a “shelter for daydreams” and he wants to build it himself – and he’s not particularly handy.

I can identify with the wanting to build it and the not being particularly capable of building it too. I like that he discusses the history and philosophy of building. He also gets into place, space, our affinity for certain forms and materials, geometry, wood, and nails.

So, his little building brings in the history and practice of architecture.

And we all need a place for our daydreams.

Daydreaming gets a bad rap, but more recent research shows that daydreaming has positive effects. It can act like meditation and allow your mind to take a break. It can release tension and anxiety. Daydreaming can be a  mental rehearsal for future actual events.

Pollan’s book is a daydream for me about building that place of my own.

Healing Gardens

A few warm (65-70 degrees F.) days this week and the peas that I planted following my traditional of St. Patrick’s day sprouted. This after flooding rains for the past month.

Gardens are healing places. Gardening is therapeutic.

The Therapeutic Landscapes Network is a knowledge base and gathering space about healing gardens, restorative landscapes, and other green spaces that facilitate health and well-being. It’s an international, multidisciplinary community of designers, health and human service providers, scholars, gardeners, and nature enthusiasts who believe that access to nature is an innate need and a basic human right, and that contact with nature, both wild and designed, enables people to live fuller, richer, healthier lives.

I discovered the Therapeutic Landscapes Network via their blog.

On the blog recently, Naomi Sachs writes about why she has changed her mind about March and early spring in the garden.

…March (or very early spring, really, which is March where I live) is about discovery. Before spring really takes off and everything bursts forth with verdant new growth and loud, colorful flowers like some tacky prom fashion show, we see spring’s emergence more slowly and subtly. Each new discovery is cause for celebration, a light at the end of winter’s tunnel. One day I see yellow on the fat Forsythia buds. The next day, they began to open, and I also notice the first new soft green growth of lady’s mantle pushing up through the soil amidst last fall’s leaves. The next day, I see the downy buds of the serviceberries, and every day they get bigger and bigger and soon they will open into delicate white flowers which will last only a week or two before the branches’ bright leaves begin to emerge.

Time for me to get outside. Working at a keyboard is not how to spend a day like this…

Fulfilling Kneads

Just a quick post taking note that there is something about baking bread – especially on a weekend in Paradelle when everything is snow-covered – that fulfills a “knead” inside me.

One of my wife's challah breads baked on a snowy day.

My latest bread book purchase, Artisan Breads at Home, is by Eric Kastel. One of his jobs is  senior manager of bakery development for Panera Bread. Since I like the bread at Panera, I got the book.

He contends – and I agree – that if you use quality ingredients and follow the recipes, you can make breads that look and taste no different from the pros.

I find breadmaking very different from “making dinner” or baking a cake. I like the process. I like the physicality of handling the dough. I like the smell of the dough and I love the smell of the baking bread.

Is it any wonder that some people who have near death experiences report when they awaken that whether or not they “saw the light” the smell most often reported is of bread baking?