I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no names
Where the Streets Have No Name/U2
One of my favorite phrases is “terra incognita.” It’s Latin for land/territory unknown and attributed to the mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and poet Claudius Ptolemy more than 1800 years ago.
During the Age of Discovery, European maps were often marked Terra Incognita (or terra in cognita, as in the map above) in regions of the world that were unknown. Sometimes those words were accompanied by the image of a dragon indicating a warning of what lies ahead.
So while 500 years ago the area now known as North America was quite known to Native Indians, it was in fact terra incognita to Spanish explorers like Christopher Columbus.
Some are naturally drawn to those unknown areas, whether that takes them to the depths of the ocean or the far reaches of space. (Many more just want to know what’s on the next TV channel.)
And so here we are at the start of a new year heading into a personal terra incognita—perhaps without even knowing it.
If you look back on the last year I imagine you can find at least a handful of times where you wandered into a metaphorical terra incognita.
Personally, just three days ago—on the last day of the year—I had a biopsy for what they think is a Basel-cell carcinoma on my nose. While the doctors think it’s benign and the most common form of skin cancer, I still know I’m entering into a personal area of terra incognita.
(Hey Scott, you just found out you have skin cancer, what are you going to do? “I’m moving back to the Sunshine State.” Gotta appreciate the ironies of life.)
As you head into this new year, entering terra incognita is both exciting and dangerous. Like the Spanish explorers, you face new discoveries and experiences as well as the possibility of hardship and even death. Part of the great thing about heading into territory unknown is your heart beats a little faster. You know you’re alive.
Isn’t terra incognita one of the reasons we go to the movies? While the typical Hollywood movie could be called anti-terra incognita, great movies take us to unknown places. And at their best they help us explore that most unexplored territory—the human heart.
Happy New Year and best wishes in your writing and life this year.
And if you’re looking for a new year’s resolution—”Wear sunscreen.”
P.S. On IMDB, they list ten films and TV programs where Terra Incognita is part of the title.
Update: 1/9/12: The biopsy came back a few days saying the type of skin cancer I had was Squamous Cell Carcinoma and today I had surgery to have it cut out. Onward—with 30-+ SPF.