Roasting the Perfect Marshmallow – A Lesson for Life

They’re life’s cushions against a hard world. Live from the Road – P. C. Zick


By Patricia Zick @PCZick

The smell of burning leaves and the taste of burned marshmallows forever mark the autumn season of my youth in Michigan. Once we’d piled all the leaves between the street and sidewalk, I forgot about the blisters on my hands from spending an entire Saturday raking the leaves into piles. The anticipation of jumping into the piles took away the pain of the wooden handle against the tenderness of my soft young hands.

autumn beauty

During those early years of burning leaves, I perfected the art of roasting the perfect marshmallow. Now that burning leaves is no longer a safe or healthy option, [see my post on this topic], I rely on my memory to reflect on my marshmallow culinary arts.

Patience is the key to lightly browning the outside to create a crust while allowing the insides to melt gently. When it comes time to place the marshmallow on the chocolate resting on a graham cracker, the gooey innards of the marshmallow melts the chocolate and creates one of the best desserts known to man, woman, and child. S’mores are well-named because that’s exactly what we mumble as we eat the first one. “I want s’more,” we say as we scrape goo from our chin, mouth, and hands.

Then the process begins all over again: finding the hottest coals – not the flame of the fire – and slowly turning the marshmallow until it’s a golden brown. All the while, observing and waiting.

Creating the perfect roasted marshmallow requires qualities beyond putting a white blob on a stick; it requires patience rather than instant gratification. Whenever I’ve tried to roast it any faster, I’ve ended up with a burned marshmallow with raw insides. Same thing happens in real life and the ensuing mess isn’t pretty. Savoring the anticipation of jumping in the leaves or devouring my favorite dessert makes the wait worthwhile.

The next lesson from my marshmallow musings requires staying out of the flame. Living constantly in the middle of chaos and cacophony creates a life of excitement for sure, but the heat burns fast and harsh, leaving little behind but ashes. Staying away from the center of the flame still creates plenty of heat without all the drama.

Observing and remaining focused on the immediate has always been a challenge for me. But again, the marshmallow stands to teach me another lesson. Always wanting more, always remaining in the flame, and always pushing for center attention is as bad as eating a charred marshmallow with rake blisters on my palms, and unmelted chocolate on my S’more. Once I chose patience over pushing, heat instead of fire, and observing rather than starring in every scene, life became easier and simpler.

Many think of spring as the time of new beginnings, but for me it is always autumn that brings renewal. It’s the time of storing and savoring the fruits of the harvest after a long hot summer. And while I no longer burn my leaves from the yard, I still savor the marshmallow, a food to provide us with a cushion as we face the vagaries of life.

Finding the Road to Happiness

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I wrote Raising Independent Children about my daughter moving to Oregon. Here’s a follow up to that post.

I stood on the bricks of an old St. Augustine street just after dawn one Sunday morning. Tears streamed down my face as I waved to the back of a VW bug. My daughter, Anna, drove away, on her journey to Portland, Oregon.

Her roommate and I stood together crying, when I suddenly realized something.

“She turned the wrong way,” I said.

We both began to grin through our tears when I heard the putt putt of Anna’s VW. A minute later, she passed by again headed in the right direction.

That moment not only made me laugh through my sadness at seeing her depart for her new life in the West, but it also brought to mind all those seemingly wrong turns we make in life. In just the matter of a second, we can change the direction.

When I changed careers at the age of forty-six, I took one of those turns in the road, not sure of the outcome. The reactions of others to my decision surprised me the most.

On my final day of teaching, students stood in line to wish me well and give me notes of appreciation and encouragement. It surprised me that these teenagers understood why I was leaving. One theme ran through all of the messages. They expressed pride in knowing someone who decided to change course when the present road brought little happiness.

“I’ve watched my parents and my aunts and uncles work jobs they hate,” one student said as he walked out of the classroom. “It’s been awful to watch so I really admire you for recognizing your dissatisfaction, and then doing something about it.”

This profound statement came from a fifteen year old. When I made my announcement to my students a few weeks earlier, I simply told them my love of teaching no longer motivated me, and I wanted to leave before I burned out. This young man understood and so did my other students.

My fellow colleagues surprised me as well. One teacher, a burly football coach, congratulated me on my move with tears in his eyes. He said he wished he had my courage to make a change because he had not been happy in a very long time.

My alleged bravery came from the conviction that my unhappiness in my work led directly to dissatisfaction with all parts of my life. Conversely, unhappiness in our personal lives permeates into our work life as well.

When this happens, we have three choices. We can remain unhappy or we can change our attitudes or we can change the road.

I decided I didn’t want to change my attitude nor did I want to remain unhappy. I’d done a decent job as a teacher, and I left while I still had pride in my work. I had something else tugging at me that would not leave me alone. I followed that path.

More than a decade later, my journey as a writer has brought me more satisfaction and happiness than I’ve ever had in any job before. In fact, I don’t think of writing as a job. It’s as much a part of me as my arms.

We all deserve happiness and satisfaction in a life that is much too short. Following Anna’s lead, when we discover we’re headed in an unsatisfactory direction, we only have to turn the car around and head a different way.

My daughter stayed in Portland for five years. Last year she moved back to Florida. My writing life has taken another direction as well. But through it all, both my daughter and I always knew when the journey no longer made us happy, we could make a turn and change our course.

Raising Independent Children – and facing the consequences

Anna – self-portrait, circa 2000

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

What was I thinking when I thought putting myself out of the parenting job meant the ultimate success as a parent?

The greatest piece of parenting advice I’d ever received, I liked to brag.

Several years back, my daughter called me to give me some news. She was newly graduated from college, but we lived in the same town in Florida.

“I’m moving to Portland, Oregon,” she said when she called.

I managed a few questions, such as, “When?”

“In a month,” came the unwanted reply. I offered a word or two of encouragement before we ended the conversation.

She wisely chose to present this bit of news right before she went to work and twenty-four hours before we planned to get together for dinner. My daughter knows me well.

Anna on the coast of Oregon, 2008

I spent the next twenty-four hours composing myself and stemming the tears every time I imagined the breadth of this country where Oregon sits as far west as I could imagine, and Florida lies as far south and east away from it.

I called a friend and sobbed, “Anna’s moving to Oregon.”

My friend let me carry on for a few minutes, before she said, “But remember, you raised her to be independent and free-spirited and to follow her dreams.”

“And what was I thinking?” I asked.

But I knew my friend held the answer. My ex-husband and I raised this independent creature whose first complete sentence set the pace for the road ahead.

“Me do it myself,” Anna said before her second birthday.

Independent child does it herself

We should have done something then because in retrospect it’s abundantly clear that our daughter would do exactly what she wanted when she wanted to do it. If only we’d tethered her to the bedpost the day of the first sentence perhaps, she’d remain in close proximity to me for the rest of my life.

As the day of her departure drew closer, I fluctuated between sadness for myself and happiness for her. Happiness won out as I saw my daughter grow up as she prepared to travel cross-country with most of her belongings.

Her father is a freelance artist, and as a child, Anna watched him draw portraits or logos for clients. Often, she went with him when he delivered the products and received a payment in return. Afterwards, they’d go buy groceries. One day when Anna was five, she wanted to buy something at the store. We told her we didn’t have the money. She didn’t say anything, but turned around and went into her bedroom. In a few minutes, she returned with a drawing of her own design.

“Now we can go to the store,” she said proudly holding out her offering that she planned to present to the cashier in exchange for the item she wanted.

So what was I thinking?

I hoped my daughter would turn out exactly the way she is as an independent, free-spirited woman possessed with the ability to follow her dreams.

With my independent daughter


Falling Leaves – A Yard Full of Gold

leaves before the fall

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

Raking leaves into piles and then burning them was a tradition from my childhood. When I became an adult, I realized this was one tradition that needed to go. We don’t need to send more smoke up into the air. In many townships, municipalities, and regions of the United States, the act of burning leaves is in violation of the law.

The Environmental Protection Agency warns against the burning of leaves because it causes air pollution, health problems, and fire hazards. Sending them to the landfill is no longer an alternative in most communities because of already overburdened landfills. Besides, putting them in plastic trash bags and hauling away organic matter to the landfill makes little or no sense.

It’s still a good idea to get most of the leaves up off the grass. However, leaving a few on the ground will provide some great fertilizer on the soil as they decompose.

We have more than an acre in our backyard where three old maples made themselves at home decades ago.

turning the ground gold

Right now the yard is beginning to look more gold than green as the leaves begin their descent from the limbs. We’re waiting now until most of those limbs are bare. When that happens, we plan to mow the grass one last time with our tractor. We’ll mow right over the leaves, chopping them into smaller pieces, which we’ll blow into long piles. From there it’s easy to put the leaves wherever we decide we want them.

waiting for mower

First, we put a protective layer around the base of the trees from where they fell. Then we load up the wagon several times and haul the piles over to the garden where we place the chopped up leaves. We’ve never had a problem with mold developing as I’ve heard some people say, but maybe it’s because we use chopped up leaves rather than putting them on whole.

garden is ready for some organic material

The rest of the leaves we put next to our compost bin and use them throughout the winter as layers between our food scraps. If you prefer, you could even bag them and keep them in the shed to use as needed.

If you don’t have a garden or you don’t compost, look for gardeners in your neighborhood. Some of them may be eager to haul away your leaves after you’ve raked them. Remember, the leaves are organic matter, so it just makes good sense to use them accordingly.

What do you do with your raked leaves?

Florida’s Fragile Environment

Gulf of Mexico – off the coast of Cedar Key, Florida

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I lived in Florida for nearly thirty years. Its landscapes and wildlife still inspire me. Its fragile environment serves as a canary in the coal mine for ecosystems everywhere. Here’s my view of Florida through my camera and words.

I often imagine what the early inhabitants of Florida saw as they fished in the rivers, hunted in the forests, and lived on the prairies. Breathtaking beauty exists in the Panhandle, on both coasts and in the central rolling hills of the peninsular state.

Unfortunately, wherever perfection exists, man attempts to perfect perfection. Nowhere is this practice more evident than in the Sunshine State. Yet when we destroy one thing in an ecosystem, we are not just destroying a part; we are working on the erosion of the whole.

The wholesale destruction of mangroves for most of the twentieth century along the southern regions of the state should have sounded a warning. Without the mangroves, the entire southern coastal zone would be in danger of disappearing. Studies conducted by the Florida Marine Research Institute show that in the Tampa Bay area alone, forty-four percent of the coastal wetlands acreage — including salt marshes and mangrove forests — have been destroyed over the last one hundred years.

mangroves in the Keys

What does this have to do with the ecosystem in which the mangrove lives? Plenty. The mangrove roots trap organic material and serve as surfaces for other marine organisms to attach and thrive. The forests themselves serve as the home base for marine life, and animals shelter themselves from the elements within the protective cover of the mangrove arms. The salt marshes serve as the lifeblood to the mangrove – a tree that revels in a salty environment.

woodstork in the Everglades

Efforts to protect some of the last of rural Florida include the government buying lands at the federal, state, and local levels. However, places such as St. George Island in Apalachicola Bay, with its nine-mile stretch of state park, cannot fight the development that is creeping up on the entrance to the park.

dunes of St. George Island in the Panhandle of Florida

Even with the purchase of these lands for public use, ribbons of asphalt roads and ropes of boardwalks make an impact upon the pristine nature of the land. However, they are unavoidable if we are to enjoy the rawness of nature without doing more destruction, such as destroying the sea oat from its protective berth upon the dunes.

sea oat roots help hold the sand in place

Those little wisps of stalks sitting upon the sand shoot deep roots into the dunes helping to keep the sand in place and thus preventing erosion. Without their presence, the coastline would begin disappearing back into the sea at an alarming rate.

In the middle of the state the connectivity to all that happens in every part of Florida is seen in the appearance of pollution in the rivers and springs, which lead directly into the Floridan aquifer and the drinking water.

manatee in Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee

Ichetucknee Springs, a long time local favorite for tubing and canoeing, appears to be one of the last pristine locations left in north Florida. Floating down the fast-flowing river past the great blue herons feeding on the banks, the turtles sunning on the rocks and the live oaks hanging low over the river, it is impossible to imagine that trouble lurks all around.

great blue heron – St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Yet recent studies from Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Geological Survey show pollution from Lake City’s wastewater spray field is making its way down into the underground water system to the headspring of the Ichetucknee nearly fifteen miles away. The discovery of DEET traces in these waters should sound the alarm to wake up.

Studies show that an underwater highway beginning at Alligator Lake in Lake City connects to the headspring of the Ichetucknee, a completely spring-made river. The Ichetucknee River eventually flows into the Santa Fe River and the Santa Fe, several miles later, reaches the Suwannee River, which then flows into the Gulf Mexico.

If we can make the connection from Lake City to the Gulf of Mexico, is it such a giant leap to connect the dots between the Keys, the Everglades, Tampa Bay, Miami, and the rest of the state and beyond? Florida’s example is one of the most visible, but the connections exist in every single ecosystem in the world.

We can’t live in oblivious ignorance regarding the world around us any longer. If we continue on the same path, our water and food, contaminated with our irresponsibility, will cease to exist.


Fall Garden Update

Ghostly Garden

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

The garden looks as if it’s been decorated for Halloween, but that’s not the case. We’re receiving some early frosts here in western Pennsylvania, and the last two nights, my husband has gone out and covered the tomato plants, which are still producing.

green tomatoes in October after a frost

red tomatoes ready for sauce after the frost


The tomatoes aren’t coming in as fast as they once were so the 2012 canning season is officially over. However, last week I made a fresh batch of sauce with them. Last night my husband picked another batch so I probably can make some more in a day or so. I read somewhere about slicing the green tomatoes and rolling them in cornmeal and then freezing them. They’re ready to make fried green tomatoes. I’ll let you know if I decide to try that.

We still have potatoes and beets in the ground ready to eat whenever we want them. Tonight I plan on making scalloped potatoes – one of my favorite comfort winter foods.

beets ready to pull

I’m still not sure where summer went but the pantry and freezer are full of the products from our garden. We’re hoping this early cold weather will be gone in a few days – just enough to zap the stink bugs crowding around our doors and windows. As I wandered around the yard this afternoon, I was heartened to see that my flowers stood up to the cold.

cosmos and dahlias after the frost

second year mum

Remnants of summer remain as the leaves turn gold and orange on the distant hills.

bees still buzzing

How’s your garden doing?

Ohio River Watershed Celebration – Eleven Years of Good Stuff

The Ohio River is a Working River

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

Rivers are vital to our lives. For decades, as we grew into an industrialized nation, we gave little regard to what we put into those rivers. Now, we understand we cannot destroy what gives us life. As a result, many of our rivers are slowly improving as we balance the needs of industry with the need for clean water.

I was heartened recently to attend the eleventh annual Ohio River Watershed Celebration  (ORWC) in Pittsburgh. ORWC is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Stream Restoration, Inc.Funding for the ORWC is provided by generous donations from private businesses, industries, foundations, and citizens.

Consol Energy was one of the major sponsors for the event.

The event’s goals are

  • To promote watershed stewardship, energy conservation, environmental education, and outreach.
  • To provide networking opportunities that form lasting partnerships among diverse community interests.
  • To celebrate and encourage environmental initiatives that support the continual recovery of the Ohio River Watershed in Western Pennsylvania and neighboring states through an enjoyable experience on the rivers.

This year’s event in late September brought out hundreds of students, parents, teachers, environmentalists, government officials, and business partners on a rainy Thursday afternoon. They gathered at the docks in downtown Pittsburgh, and without complaint about the soggy weather, boarded two cruise ships bound for the three rivers of the Steel City.

A rainy day in Pittsburgh

Ron Schwartz with Pennsylvania DEP told the crowd, “This rain is nature’s way of purifying the waterways.”

Nowhere is it clearer why a city exists where it does than in Pittsburgh. The Monongahela River flows from south to north to meet up with the south flowing Allegheny River. The two rivers meet at the Point in downtown, and the Ohio River forms and flows almost 1,000 miles westward to the Mississippi River. This year’s theme “Our Rivers – let’s get to the point” focused on how those three rivers shaped the course of the region.

The Point where three rivers converge

When coal was discovered in the hills above the convergence of the three rivers, the city was poised to become a giant during the Industrial Revolution. However, giants leave large footprints and within a few years of steel mills spewing out poisons into the air and water, Pittsburgh was a coughing and sputtering mess. The once bucolic journey of the rivers changed to an industrial highway.

Pittsburgh is home to the most bridges of any city in the world.

Thankfully, with deliberate consideration, the city has been reborn, and the rivers are testament to the rebirth. Fish and wildlife have returned.

Two cruise ships set sail from the docks. The Imagination Cruise overflowed with students waving from the upper decks of the Gateway Clipper fleet ship despite the pouring rain.

Imagination Cruise

Adults boarded the other ship for the Networking Cruise.

Networking Cruise Ship

Booths and presentations for both cruises provided information on how to protect watersheds. Other booths celebrated the joys of paddling the rivers and enjoying their recreational value. Yet others passed out literature on how to best maintain gardens and lawns while not harming the watershed. Before walking down the ramp to the docks, several vehicles in the parking lot showed visitors how gas guzzlers can become fuel efficient vehicles.

school bus


Mr. Rogers’ statute watched over the ships from the banks of the Allegheny River on the north shore. The man who made Pittsburgh his home taught us all to love our communities. It’s a great day in the neighborhood, rain or shine.


Home on the Range

Bull elk taking care of business

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I began my writing life as a reporter for a small town weekly newspaper. It was a great place to start because the job required I learn to do everything, including taking my own photos. I just wanted to write, but as we’ve become a society in love with the visual, photographs are an essential for many forms of expression, including a blog.

I’ve been posting about my trip to Denver last month. I was only there for a few days, but the trip gave me a wealth of stories and photos. Our trip happened to coincide with the fall rut for elks. The bulls congregate with cows and calves in September and early October. They leave in the montane ecosystem which consists of ponderosa pines and mountain meadows.
I hope you enjoy a few of my photos as much as I enjoyed capturing them.

Rocky Mountain Majesty

Rocky Mountain Majesty

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

On our recent visit to Denver, we managed a day for leaving the city and driving north. It’s a dramatic drive because Denver is flat, but the mountains are a vision on the horizon. The tour guide Moon Handbook – Denver suggested the Peak-to-Peak Byway, “if you just want to enjoy the scenery at your own pace with lots of stops or none at all.” We chose the lots of stops version.

Blackhawk to Estes Park is about a 55-mile trip, but we turned it into more than a hundred mile trek that left us plenty of time for seeing some of the most beautiful vistas known to man, until the next one appeared.

Our first detour occurred when we saw the sign for Idaho Springs.

“That’s the home of Tommyknocker brewery,” my husband said. It happened to be one of our favorite brewers.

Idaho Springs, Colorado

We turned the car around and made the ten-mile detour for lunch. We enjoyed our Indian pale ales and a lunch of black beans and fish tacos.

When in Rome or Idaho Springs. . .

Back on the route again, we traveled parallel to the Continental Divide. The aspen trees were beginning to turn and at certain points, we came to colorful patches of the trees.

aspens displaying their true colors

They call the route Peak-to-Peak for a reason – we went in the crevices from one peak to another with views of Mount Meeker, Longs, Pawnee, and Ouizel peaks. We stopped at the visitor’s center near Longs Peak where a ranger convinced us needed to take another detour.

herd of elks

“It costs $20 at the entrance to the national park,” he said. “But you won’t be sorry in the least.”

He was right. We entered the Rocky Mountain National Park at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center on Route 36. Then we began the climb to the alpine region of the park. We went around curves with no guardrails; we saw bulls herding their female elks; we went to the highest point on any paved road in the United States (12,183 feet); and we went where the trees don’t grow. We were in the clouds and looked down on the smaller peeks – those midgets of only 10,000 feet.

View from highest point

We came back down the mountain as the sun began its descent as well. The lowering sun made dark shadows on the mountains creating dark patches on my photos.

deep shadows

Rocky Mountain Majesty at its finest.

Steller’s jay