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Cranes and Potatoes

My family had a huge garden, when I was growing up—about 2½ town lots. Its bounty kept us fed throughout the year.

By summer’s end, Mama had a huge freezer filled with beans, corn, peas, carrots, spinach and Swiss chard. And Baba’s root cellar, next door to us, was brimming with beets, turnips, potatoes and more carrots.


When I was little, my baba was the garden boss, and planting and gathering with Baba are among my favourite memories. My little brother and I were each allowed to stake out our very own garden plots and plant whatever we wanted there.

Making the rows and planting seeds in the ground was exciting! But I don’t remember actually harvesting anything from my own wee plot. I think the novelty had worn off by the time things were growing and the rest of the garden was in full production.

I still plant a garden now, although it’s just a small one, in the city.

One of the things I plant is a special red-and-white heritage potato that Ukrainian pioneers brought to Canada when they came. They’re not the biggest potatoes—not nearly as big as the Netted Gems my family used to grow—but they’re tasty and they store well.

Potatoes have to be hilled, so they take up a lot of room. This year, I decided to save garden space and plant them in sacks on my deck instead. My experiment was disappointing! Not a total disaster, since I grew enough for next year’s seed. But my biggest ones are only a quarter of the size they should be.

Red and white heirloom potatoes
Here’s my harvest from 6 sacks. Pretty pathetic! But I’ll try again next year, in a different spot with a different type of sack.


At home, harvesting potatoes was a big job. My baba would dig up the crop and leave the potatoes on the ground to dry. When us kids came home from school, we would help her gather them up into sacks and haul them to the root cellar.

Baba was always careful that we didn’t fill our sacks too full. We could strain ourselves, she said. So we would haul our half-filled little sacks to the root cellar. And Baba would heft a gunny sack that was almost as tall as she was onto her back.

Potato harvest time was when the sandhill cranes flew over, kroo-kroo-kroo-ing their mournful lament as they made their way back to warmer climes. And Baba would sing the crane song, “CHu’iesh, braty mii?”—“Do you hear, my brother?”

Here are the words, loosely translated:

Do you hear, my brother, my friend? The cranes fly away in a silvery skein. They call, “Kroo-kroo-kroo. We’ll have worn out our wings by the time we’ve crossed the vast sea. And we’ll die in a foreign homeland.”

Sandhill cranes on the wing.
Image by Marlin Greene from Pixabay.

I always thought this was an immigrant song. I’ve learned (by accident!) that it’s not, although Ukrainian pioneers like my Canadian-born baba adopted it as their own lament for their lost ancestral homeland.

The text of this song was penned by the poet Bohdan Lepky in 1910. It’s original title was “Do You See, My Brother?”

During World War I, the poem was set to music by the poet’s brother, Lev Lepky. Lev was a journalist, writer, songwriter and officer of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, which operated from 1917–1919 as a regular unit of the army of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic. Although the poet Bohdan was thinking of the Ukrainian emigrants when he wrote the text, the song became a requiem for soldiers who died for Ukraine’s freedom. Composers such as Kyrylo Stetsenko and Filaret Kolessa arranged the piece for four-voice choir, and it entered the concert repertoire.

Here’s a lovely arrangement performed by bass Vassily Savenko and the Kyiv’s Revutsky Male Capella.

But for me, it will always be my baba’s song, and I’ll always think of her when the cranes fly over.


Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine

Українська мала енциклопедія

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