Reflections on a Legend: 

Paul J. Zinke, 1920-2006

Robert F. Powers

Zinke Paul J. Zinke, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at U.C. Berkeley, passed from us on August 18, 2006.  Paul, an inspirational and charismatic advocate for the relevance of forest soils, was a cofounder of the California Forest Soils Council a quarter century ago.  He contributed immeasurably to the CFSC’s educational mission of melding forestry and soil science to the betterment of forest management.  But beyond this, Paul argued persuasively that membership in CFSC should, above all, be fun. Through the years we have tried to stay true to this.  Accordingly, at the summer business meeting, I moved that our CFSC scholarship be named The Paul J. Zinke Memorial Scholarship.”  The motion was seconded and approved by all attending members.  Contributions toward this scholarship should be made to the Secretary-Treasurer, Susan Stewart (mailing address 17404 Blue Tent School Road, Nevada City, CA 95959).

Paul broadened our knowledge of soil carbon and nitrogen storage at scales from the individual pedon to the world’s life zones, and his 1962 paper on the influence of individual trees on soil properties stands as a classic.  Yet, his true legacy resides in those of us fortunate to have known this exceptional and personable man.  His friendly warmth and enthusiasm were infectious.  As a graduate student I was moved by the genuine interest he showed in my ideas and the encouragement he offered to me at every turn.  I was not alone.  Other remembrances of this remarkable fellow may be seen at

Early in his career Paul worked on the Cooperative Soil-Vegetation Survey.  I understand that at some point he was dismissed as being a forester who lacked the credentials to speak about soils.”  That turned him to graduate school at Cal.  His mentor was Hans Jenny, and the rest is history.  He and the late Bill Colwell were great friends, and they had a regular routine of meeting for coffee at a little cafe mid-way between Mulford Hall and the PSW building in Berkeley.  Listening to them reminisce about “Old times on the S-V Survey” was a rare treat.  Each thoroughly enjoyed the company of the other.  And to say that they were familiar with each other’s stories would be an understatement.  A typical conversation went like this:

“Do you remember the time in Marin County…”

“Yeah, you mean the curve in the road with the big rock…”

“Yep.  And the rancher with the two kids and the 3-legged dog…”

 At this point they’d both be convulsed in laughter to nearly the point of tears.  That would be the end of that particular story, and they’d be on to the next, each finishing the sentence for the other.

To the fullest, he personified the “Renaissance Man.”  At a recent memorial for Paul, Bill Libby, a fellow emeritus professor, recounted the following as relayed to me by John Fiske (and corroborated by Bill):

Apparently toward the end of WWII, Paul was fighting his way up Italy in the 10th Mountain Division, and was involved with Division intelligence.  At one point he infiltrated across the northeastern border of Italy (probably near Trieste) into Slovenia to make contact with the Tito partisans in Yugoslavia.  Much later in 1986 (when Paul was in his 60’s), Paul and Bill Libby attended an IUFRO meeting in Ljubliana, a Slovenian city, but the two had split up en route.  This was a politically-tense time.  Tito had died in 1980, and the various Yugoslavian ethnic/political factions were getting rather testy, so exterior and interior borders of Yugoslavian “states” were armed and dangerous.  Bill said that he took the traditional route … fly into Zagreb and take a bus to Ljubliana.  Not so, Paul.  Paul flew into Venice and infiltrated the armed Italian-Slovenian border … just to see whether he could “still do it” (Libby’s words).  Of course, he could.