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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Art of American Cartography

Air Date: Week of
Imus's award winning map. (Imus Geographics)

A prize-winning map tells the story of the United States as never before. Map-maker Dave Imus spent 6000 hours creating a depiction of America that is much art as it is cartography. He explains to host Bruce Gellerman why it takes a big sheet of paper to understand the beauty and vastness of this country. Then we celebrate National Poetry Month with a poem from Walt Whitman that celebrates America and its varied voices.


[MUSIC: Johnny Cash “I’ve Been Everywhere” from The Legend Of Johnny Cash (Sony Music 2005).]

[CASH: I’ve traveled every road in this here land--I’ve been everywhere man, I’ve been everywhere man…]

GELLERMAN: America stretches from sea to shining sea and then some. By one count a nation of 25,000 villages, towns and cities storied places, all.

[MUSIC CONTINUES: I’ve been to – Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo….]

GELLERMAN: Whoa! America is almost too big for a mere map. There’s a lot of territory and history to chart but cartographer Dave Imus tried his hand and succeeded fabulously. His map: The Essential Geography of the United States of America won best in show from the Cartography and Geographic Information Society.

In a conversation that was literally all over the map, Dave Imus mentioned that it took him two years and 6000 hours to design his award winner.

IMUS: Before I started making this map I surveyed all the other U.S. maps that have been on our walls forever. And my conclusion was it was no wonder that Americans are really very geographically disinterested, because on these maps, there was really very little geography. And so I thought I could do a better job.

GELLERMAN: I love maps. You obviously love maps.

IMUS: (Laughs). Oh, I do!

GELLERMAN: You know, every map basically tells a story or stories, what was the story behind your map?

Dave Imus, and his map. (Imus Geographics)

IMUS: Just trying to capture the basic character of the United States. A map that reflected what a fascinating land this is that we all share, you know, from the Florida Keys to Point Barrow and Honolulu to Portland, Maine (laughs) - there is so much going on in this country that had never been expressed cartographically. And, you know, with maps being the basic tool of geographic understanding, we needed a map like this so that we could understand all this stuff that was going on.


GELLERMAN: I’m going to unfurl your map right here…. It’s big!

IMUS: We have a big country, you know, and if you don't see it large, you don’t get an appreciation for a sweep of it all.


GELLERMAN: I’m going to take my finger and I’m going to just go like that, okay?

IMUS: (Laughs) Okay.

What put Smackover, AR on the map? It could be because it’s home to the oldest traffic light in the south. (Photo: Wikimedia/ Chris Litherland)

GELLERMAN: I landed on Smackover Arkansas, it’s near a place called Hope.

IMUS: Now, you’re expecting me to know a whole bunch about it…I know where Hope is….

GELLERMAN: Now you know where Smackover is, it’s right near it.

IMUS: You know, Bruce, I don’t recall exactly why I put Smackover on the map. I wish I could tell you specifically, but you know there are 10,000 places identified on this map, so I don’t remember everything.

GELLERMAN: Well, a lot about a map is relationships and also serendipity, if you just move over your map, just like a half inch from Smackover, is the Jerome Internment Camp, and right above that is the Rower Internment Camp.

This map from 1681 shows the results of the expeditions of Father Marquette and L. Jolliet (1673) and the Cavelier de la Salle expedition in the Mississipi valley. (Photo: Wikimedia)

IMUS: Right. You know, I wanted to have cultural representations for everybody in this incredibly diverse country that we have. So I have ten or 11 internment camps that were, unfortunately, occupied by thousands of Japanese Americans in World War II, and to a lot of people these are very important landmarks and so I researched them and put them on my map.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, you’ve got Rosa Parks Library in Montgomery, in Birmingham, you’ve got the 16th Street Baptist Church!

IMUS: And in Selma, I have the Edmund Pattis Bridge, and this really forms a Civil Rights Triangle in Alabama, and you can see how this triangle relates to Atlanta, where Martin Luther King came from, and he came down to Montgomery and talks to Rosa Parks about what are we going to do, and they decide that she’s not going to give up her seat on the bus.

And so you can just see where all this stuff happened and then you’re not going to forget that it did happen. You know, I really gained a greater appreciation for civil rights when I made this map, just by seeing the spatial relationships of all this stuff.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, it’s like connecting the dots.

Sidney E. Morse drew this map of the United states in 1823. (Photo: Wikimedia)

IMUS: Exactly! I mean, geography is this tapestry of elements of rivers and roads, and landmarks, cities, forest, mountains, valleys, lakes, on and on and on. And, you know, just taken individually, well so what, it’s just data. But you combine all these things and you’ve created information, you know, information is not information until it is in formation.

GELLERMAN: Yours is the first map, actually, that I’ve seen that has the Deepwater Horizon wreckage.

IMUS: Well, by virtue of the fact that this the only map of the United States that has been made since the Deepwater Horizon sank in the Gulf of Mexico. But I thought that that was apropos, that was one of the worst oil rig disasters ever, and so it’s going to become an iconic place, I think.

GELLERMAN: Now, your map is old school. It’s paper, and it’s artwork. Why didn’t you do something online, then you could put Everywheresville, right?

IMUS: Well, that’s not the point. The point is to flesh out the broad strokes of our country and show how it all works together, which our country sorely needs. Daniel Edleson, the fellow who is the Vice President of Education at National Geographic said that Americans know next to nothing about geography, and he’s right!

And that’s very unfortunate for a lot of reasons, because a geographically illiterate society makes, you know, uniformed political, economic and environmental decisions, and that’s reason enough to want to foster geographic literacy. But to me, as an artist, my main motivation is that noticing and appreciating our surroundings enriches our lives. Just like noticing and appreciating music and other types of visual art.

Samuel Augustus Mitchell’s 1867 map depicts the country in considerable detail with two notable exceptions. Wyoming retains its western panhandle and "Dacotah" is one large state. (photo: Wikimedia)

GELLERMAN: I do notice that you can actually see the Mississippi River bisecting the country, and you know, that’s the border for all these states! Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. And you can actually see the boundary being the geography, the political boundary.

IMUS: It’s actually the first U.S. map that’s had widespread distribution, that you can actually see the Ohio River, which is a gigantic river, where at its confluence with the Mississippi is actually bigger than the Mississippi, that’s my understanding. But you just can’t even hardly find it on most U.S. maps, let alone just see it, see that it forms the boundary for all these states.

GELLERMAN: I’m looking at Alaska, and Dave, I’ve gotta tell you, I found a typo.

IMUS: No way! And you’re telling the whole world about it! Thanks man, okay where is it?

GELLERMAN: Bering Land Bridge. It says NP capital R National Preserve, NPR. If I look at your key it’s NP small r.

IMUS: Oh. Well, I guess you caught me!

IMUS: Well, you know, tens of thousands of eyes have seen this map now, so people have pointed out a few typos and I’m going to correct those in the near future, but most people that have the map will never find them.

GELLERMAN: We should tell listeners that you’re in Eugene, Oregon, at a studio and you’ve got your map there, right?

IMUS: Yeah, yeah I’ve just put it on the floor.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, it’s big! Well, I’ve got mine here. I want to turn your map over, you know, I didn’t realize this until I was unrolling it just now, that you’ve got even more information on the other side!

IMUS: Everything on the map is indexed on the backside. And it’s a great big sheet of paper, and it’s sort of fun to read to. Reading the list of landmarks of the United States…

GELLERMAN: I was just going to say!

IMUS: You know, it’s fun because you’ve heard of all these places all your life, most of these places you sort of know where they are but few of them you know exactly where they are. It’s fun just to read down this list of American landmarks and realize what a rich, cultural country we live in.

GELLERMAN: Well, I’ve never heard of Poverty Point National Monument, or…

IMUS: (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: Or, you know, the Smith River National Recreation Area.


IMUS: Oh you haven’t?

GELLERMAN: No. Or Voyageurs National Park!

IMUS: Well, Voyageurs is in Minnesota, I guarantee everybody in Minnesota has heard of it. And Smith River National Recreation Area is in Northern California, you know, people in that part of California certainly have heard of it. So, you know, that’s part of the criteria.

Dave Imus with one of the many landmarks on the map. (Imus Geographics)

You know, I had never really heard of the Rogueling Bridge in Cincinnati, either, but it’s an incredibly important landmark there, so it’s on the map. This map has the places that haven’t been put on a map before like the Alamo, the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Andreas Fault, the Trans Alaska Pipeline, Iditarod Trail and I’m just pulling these off the top of my head. If you just read down this list and you see all these things, you’ll go: ‘Wow! What a country!’

GELLERMAN: What’s your next adventure? Are you going to make another map? First America, now the World?

IMUS: Well, you know, I’m going the other direction with my interest. I get requests all the time: ‘Hey, when are you going to do a World map?’ And that would be pretty fascinating, but, you know, there’s already a lot of really decent world maps made by American cartographers and European cartographers.

My interest is to form a non-profit organization staffed by the leading cartographers in the United States, for the purpose of making an essential geography map of each state to be distributed free of charge to every social studies teacher, in the United Sates. Honestly, I think if that happened, if we had these geographically expressive maps out there, that might be the catalyst to create interest in geography that would eventually lead to it being taught officially in our schools again. I think that would eventually happen some day.

Dave Imus hopes to make his next Essential Geography map of Wyoming. (photo: Wikimedia)

Right now I have all of the information I would need to make geography maps of Oregon and Alaska because I’ve already made maps of those places, I just have to redesign them. But I’ve really got a strong hankering for some reason to make the essential geography of Wyoming. It’s a place that most Americans know is there, and they know Yellowstone is there, but we don’t really know that much about it. It’s an incredibly beautiful state, a mountainous state, that I would like that one to be first.

[MUSIC: Blossom Dearie: “Rhode Island Is Famous For You” from The Verve Masters Vol 51 (Verve Records 1996).]

[MUSIC: Copper, comes from Arizona. Peaches comes from Georgia and Lobsters come from Maine…]

BRUCE: Well Dave, thank you so very much, I really appreciate it.

IMUS: Yeah Bruce I love talking to you.

[MUSIC CONTINUES: Old Whiskey, comes from Old Kentucky, ain’t the country lucky New Jersey gives us glue?]

GELLERMAN: Who knew? Cartographer Dave Imus - his map is The Essential Geography of the United States of America. Well, minnows come from Minnesota, pencils from Pennsylvania, and poems from Pomaha? As America commemorates National Poetry month, we leave you with this.

MANY VOICES: Ready, read this, I'll direct this - I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman.

The audio collage of Walt Whitman’s I Hear America Singing was recorded in New York City’s Washington Square Park. (Photo: FlickrCC/ Ed Yourdon)

I hear America sing, the very carols I hear,
I hear those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-
hand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to no one else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

[MUSIC: Guitar strumming]

GELLERMAN: “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman, an audio collage produced by Ike Sriskandarajah for the Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry Off the Shelf” series.




Imus Geographics: The Art of Cartography

The audio collage of I Hear America Singing first appeared on “Poetry Off the Shelf” from the Poetry Foundation


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