OEDEL: Food for Macon’s soul

December 8, 2013 

Macon has profound geographic appeal, enough so that Native Americans lived here for thousands of years until the remaining Muscogee Creeks were relocated -- mostly to Oklahoma -- after federal passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. A proposal is now being actively pressed to make the wild areas southeast of downtown along the Ocmulgee River a national park and preserve, expanding the Ocmulgee National Monument. That’s roughly the area recognized since 1997 as the Muscogee Creeks’ traditional cultural properties.

S. Heather Duncan in her Dec. 2 Telegraph story properly identified Jack Sammons, Bryan Adams, the Peyton Anderson Foundation and others as driving the plan. Kudos to them all.

But there are even deeper roots to this mission tracing back to the Civil Conservation Corps, which set out in 1933 during the Depression under responsible leadership to gather, at first, 250,000 unemployed, unskilled young men, and later, millions more, to do good things with their raw strength and drive. Probably the most notable local CCC project was the exploration and preservation of the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds, leading to its designation in 1934 as a national monument.

Fast-forwarding 80 years, we find ourselves in another time of high youth unemployment. Unemployment, about 25 percent during the Depression, is even higher today among Macon’s young men. But that’s where the parallels end.

Back then, we had the confidence to put our young people to good work under solid leaders so that they could experience for themselves the fruits of their labors. Today, we keep our unemployed young people sedated with video games, spectator sports, movies, television and fine food stamp food, including, under law, candy, chips and sodas.

Such sorry strategies haven’t stopped Macon’s overall crime index from rising to 9,047/100,000 versus the 3,246/100,000 national average. Those statistics rank Macon among the worst one percent of all U.S. cities.

Macon’s aimless young too often turn to gangs -- rogue groups that grow like weeds in the absence of more intentional forms of civilization. Civilization needs cultivation. We’re not cultivating a sustainable civilization in Macon today.

There are exceptions. Last week, I stopped by the Mulberry Street United Methodist Church’s demonstration community garden on New Street. Two white seniors worked alongside two young, black male teens in that thriving garden, the two oldsters trying to make a difference for the two remarkably sweet youngsters by passing along what it means to grow something with your sweat, touch the earth from which we come, give to others, and cultivate yourself along the way.

Mulberry’s garden project is modest compared with the CCC’s Depression-era reclamation of Macon’s Native American heritage. Still, it’s noble. Who could not be touched by those four gardeners working together to grow things -- including community, peace and a rooted optimism?

Even so, I didn’t know whether to smile about the four gardeners’ charming efforts, or to weep about the puniness of their stand in the face of the massive challenges faced by Macon’s youth overall.

Our Washington politicians and pundits are embroiled in a pointless debate about aggregate food stamp funding. My impression is that their flap is largely irrelevant to what our kids really need for their sustenance. Even in Macon, youth already seem able to get enough calories. They more deeply need something else.

Another public policy issue percolating in some states, and in the U.S. capital too, is about raising unskilled-worker pay to levels at which full-time employees don’t have to rely on food stamps. There again, our collective resources should be enough to accomplish that sensible objective.

But our young people will still need something more than full bellies and wallets. I saw a glimpse of what’s missing when several quiet, calm and wise Muscogee elders led by Alan Cook came to Macon in the 1990s publicly to discuss the fate of their cultural homeland. If you were there, you know. They seemed intimate with the infinite -- something those four gardeners last week at Mulberry’s garden were also together trying to touch. Our youth need more of that, not just more calories and cash.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer University Law School.

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