'Notions About Nature' or 'Seeking Spiritual Signs in the Living World'
A communal network for meditation on notions about nature: part of the Schools in
Agenda 21 Network (SCAN)
The following meditation began with the industrial assault of the Sea Empress on an
beautiful coastline that had been a source of spiritual inspiration for the painter Graham Sutherland.
Groups of children were activated to follow Sutherland's particular notional language; a quest which
led inevitably to his Great Tapestry in Coventry Cathedral. SCAN is particularly grateful to the
pupils and staff of Milford Haven High School, and the High Schools of Bishop of Llandaff, and
Willows in Cardiff, for opening up this novel strand of a cross-curricular, value-related curriculum.
is presented on the web to other students for comment, and in the hope that it will be extended
with other local appraisals of the 'sacredness of place'. This extension material may be accessed
from any part of the text which is underlined.
The first version was edited by Denis Bellamy and Ruth Downing from the contributions
students who have participated in real, and virtual, discussion groups within the Schools in
Communities Agenda 21 Network SCAN organised from the National Museum of Wales Cardiff
One of the general points raised is concern about 'the authority of material on the
requires the periodic editing of the main body of text to ensure that all aspects are covered and
mistakes are corrected. This is the task of an 'editorial network of teachers'' representing the very
wide cross-curricular interest in the project that has already emerged.
Three distinct, but closely interrelated, systems of environmental appraisal are usually
offered as a
framework to organise some of the many strands of a value-related school curriculum. Such
neighbourhood explorations are necessary for schools to appraise local notions about nature that
make the community served by the school a special place. These are categorised according to
whether the starting point is a particular place and its distinctive features, a particular notion,
law, plan or imaginative statement, or a local person who invented or propagated an important
notion. This is the basis of the Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network (SCAN) which was
invented and developed by teachers and their advisors to help bring the conclusions of the Rio
Environment Summit of 1992 into the centre of the curriculum.
To these curriculum 'starters' could be added an option to begin with a spiritual
although most teachers are not confident in handling this particular approach to study the
A spiritual view of environment emerges from trying to read and express various signs
workings of nature in relation to our position in the grand scheme of things. For example, the Koran
has much to say about 'signs' which, through the imagination, point to the deeper significance of
'In the creation of the
heavens and the earth; in the alternation of night and day; in the ships
that sail the ocean with cargoes beneficial to man; in the water which God sends down from
the sky and with which He revives the earth after its death, dispersing over it all manner of
beasts; in the disposal of the winds, and in the clouds that are driven between earth and sky;
surely there are signs for rational men (The Koran 2:163).
With a similar set of holistic notions about nature, St Francis of Assisi praised
God 'for our sister,
Mother Earth, which brings forth varied fruits and grass and glowing flowers', and ended with praise
to God 'for our Sister the death of the body'. Neighbourliness on the part of a stranger is signed as
a cultural element of evolved human behaviour in the parable of the good Samaritan. A sunset seen
above an urban skyline can be both a scientific and an uplifting spiritual experience. These cultural
notions about nature cemented families to neighbourhood in the past, but are now lost or diluted
within our urban and rural placeless subcultures. Individuals and families lie unattached to the
major world religions and are left to develop their place in an idiosyncratic cosmology.
Moral and spiritual teaching has always relied heavily on visual imagery. Images make
a society's attitudes, values and beliefs, and to transmit signs of what it is to be human from one
generation to the next. They also enable us to see reality from different perspectives where the
same image may form a bridge, say, between science and religion. However, an image may also
enable us to grasp mysteries beyond human understanding. In meditating on Sutherland's tapestry
one is obviously beginning with messages that may be presented through graphic art. Notions
about nature are equally powerful when presented in words and music. In this context, students
soon began to move between the different kinds of communication media.
Using a system of 'notional appraisals', examples may be gathered within a humanities
the influential role played by the visual arts, literary expressions, and architecture, in the formation
and maintenance of religious and spiritual values. However, there is no generally accepted
educational framework for gathering and using neighbourhood notions about nature to link
communities and environment to a larger whole. In particular, classroom examples are needed
which highlight the use of notional values of environment in guiding the course of local development.
This issue came to a head for many children in South Wales when the super-tanker 'Sea
came to grief in Milford Haven in February 1996. SCAN*, the Schools in Communities Agenda 21
Network, was just beginning to develop as a system of environmental appraisal in Pembrokeshire's
schools. Children in the SCAN schools were already alerted to the fragility of their neighbourhood,
but the Sea Empress disaster still came as a shock. There was a burst of creative activity as they
tried to articulate their feelings of fear and frustration about the loss of valued features of their
coastline. These, for the most part, appeared as poems, letters, and video presentations. There
was also a conference in Cardiff''s National Museum led by the Pembrokeshire SCAN schools who
were in the front line of the oil spill and its horrific clean-up.