Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Environmental enclave

Scientist's rural property gives her peace and solace

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University of Winnipeg aquatic toxicologist and professor of biology Eva Pip is up to her ears in flowering dill plants at her home near Beausejour. The outspoken environmentalist is passionate about nature.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

University of Winnipeg aquatic toxicologist and professor of biology Eva Pip is up to her ears in flowering dill plants at her home near Beausejour. The outspoken environmentalist is passionate about nature. Photo Store

RM of Brokenhead -- Eva Pip gestures toward towering gladiolas and a mullein medicinal plant taller than she is. She sighs.

"This is the worst my garden has ever looked," she says. She means it, but to a visitor, her place looks loved and well-kept.

What the outspoken Pip, an aquatic toxicologist and professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg, really means is she's not able to garden this year. And that troubles her.

This indomitable environmentalist -- some would call her a polarizing crusader -- has a full life beyond her public pronouncements on the state of Lake Winnipeg and Manitoba's waterways.

She doesn't say so, but her home speaks for her: This is a woman who walks her talk.

Pip lives on a 16-hectare property southwest of Beausejour, raises her own food, keep bees for honey, has planted hundreds of trees and registered the former farmland as a provincial heritage preserve.

The land wears a mantle of aspens and berry bushes; it's home to bears and deer. Their flattened nests stand out among the tall prairie grass.

A red-tailed hawk calls out a screech the moment a visitor arrives. A pair of golden eagles come here to raise their chicks, and there's a great horned owl who calls this place home.

After 20 years on this land, Pip relishes a simple life. No Wi-Fi, no cable. Lots of books. Lunch with a visitor was homemade borscht, all organically raised, including cattail hearts from her pond. Dessert was saskatoon pie, with berries from the bush. She's noticed a lot of plants have become infected in the last few years, with all types of diseases. She worries about the future. The farmer next door covets her land.

But this summer, the tiny lady who loves the bush has a more immediate problem.

SSLqI have to say what I think. It makes me really unpopular. I can't help myself'

With classes set to start in three weeks, Pip has spent the summer suffering horribly.

She shattered her left arm June 20, landing on the business end of an idling chainsaw in a fall from her shed roof.

Nearly two months later, she still has no feeling in the middle and ring fingers of her left hand. Where bone joins wrist, the ball joint splintered into 25 pieces. Now out of a cast, Pip wears a brace and chafes at the restraint. She's in near constant pain, and she's tired.

Her injury, on top of a battle she won to beat back esophageal cancer two years ago, hasn't dimmed her ardour as an environmental defender.

"In my line of work, I get threats," she says, adding it would be easier to stay silent, maybe even wiser.

"I have to say what I think. It makes me really unpopular. I can't help myself. Inside yourself, you feel like you have to speak out so you know you've done what you could."

To Pip, everything that stands, grows, walks, runs, slithers and crawls is related. "Everything is a living being... Absolutely everything is connected, so if we hurt one part, eventually we are hurting ourselves," she says.

Pip suspects some of the enemies she's made may be quietly cheering at her latest misfortune. She's made stands against everything from lakeside cottage development to nitrogen loads, that stuff along with phosphorus that spawns blue-green algae detectable from space on Lake Winnipeg.

The blooms landed the 10th-largest freshwater lake in the world on an environmental list as the most-threatened lake in the world in 2013.

Pip predicted it all.

But here on this land, Pip finds her solace, her peace and her family in every rock, tree, plant, animal and bird. She's out every day grooming dozens of kilometres of trails on an old tractor. She grudgingly hand plucks thistles and milkweed to keep the municipal noxious- weeds inspector happy -- and off her property.

Bold artistic stained-glass panels she fired herself send shafts of coloured light from windows and cabinets inside her two-storey home. A piano dominates the living room -- Pip is a talented composer with a CD of original suites recorded at Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall, despite the fact she's never taken a music lesson in her life. She's also a self-taught nature photographer.

Everywhere in her home there are oriental rugs and hanging tapestries. If there's such a thing as a Ukrainian palace, this is it.

There are no pets, no children, no husband, and there are reasons for that, too. Her parents were imprisoned by the Nazis in Ukraine. Their experience in the Second World War left them emotionally bereft, and their only child made attachments with nature instead of people.

That same connection to nature that makes her so passionate in public takes on another aspect in private.

Pip feeds cookies to wild chickadees (they land on her hand for the treats). Sweetgrass, an aboriginal medicine that normally grows in swampy ground, stands tall in dry sand here. The sweetgrass is one of many plants that thrive through her care under conditions they'd normally wither under anywhere else.

In probably the best story she told while giving a visitor a tour, Pip described a bear encounter that would have killed anyone else.

"Sometimes they'll come out," she says when asked about bears and how she handles the risk of an encounter.

"I'll talk to them, show them what I'm doing. Normally, you can get along with bears," she told me.

Until one day, she grabbed a bear by accident.

"I was out pulling thistles and milkweed, and I reached into a thicket under a tree," she says. "I could feel something. It was firm, but it was rubbery."

Pip was wearing gardening gloves. Whatever she was touching, it was no thistle.

"So I moved around to the other side of the tree. I couldn't see anything, so I reached in again."

The same thing happened. She touched something big, firm and rubbery. She had no time to react to what happened next.

"A bear jumped out. It was this far from me," she says, hands spread out the length of a pen.

Picture it: A black bear nose to nose with a startled scientist.

"I thought, 'That's it for me.' I was going to be torn apart. 'What a horrible way to die,' I thought. And nobody would even know until I didn't pay my hydro bill. That bear was glowering at me because I woke him up. I started to cry. I said 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I didn't see you.' He looked at me, like 'Well, OK.' He got up and walked off. Then he turned around and gave me this look, like; 'Honestly, a bear can't even get a nap!'

"I told the conservation officer and he said to me, 'Ma'am, are you ever lucky. Normally that bear would tear you apart, but that bear knows you, by your smell, by your voice. That's what saved you.' "

Later, after a day of wandering the living palette of this renaissance woman's life, a visitor hugs her in thanks.

The visitor drives away. Through her vehicle's sound system, Pip's piano suites sound as soothing as the breeze that makes the aspens tremble in the waning August afternoon.

Over the sound of piano, her voice comes back to mind, echoing an earlier comment: "To me, the best place in the world is the bush. When I'm overwhelmed or there's too much to take, this is where I go."

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 F5

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