Take my word for it, carving a whistle from elder is an empowering activity, one that traces the handiwork of our ancestors and resounds in you long after the note has disappeared into the autumn air. And it’s dead simple. All you need is a penknife and a pair of eyes.
Elder is extremely common and easy to identify. Look around roadside verges, parks, woods, wastelands and railway lines for a bush-like, shrubby tree. It has oval-shaped, serrated leaves that grow in opposite pairs and a cracked, corky bark that's grey-brown in colour. The telltale squishy removable pith, which makes it such an ideal whistle making material, runs through its core.
Use a straight branch a bit thicker than your index finger and around ten centimetres long. At this width the pith inside should be at its widest, taking up most of the cross-section. The ratio is important; the tube needs to be hollow enough to create a decent whistle, but not so thin that it splits during its creation. Ideally, the wood will be two or three millimetres thick.
With a penknife, shave away the outer bark and use a sharpened stick to push out the pith in the middle to leave a clear, wooden tube. Now cut the ‘voicing mouth’ two centimetres in from one end by slicing vertically down onto the tube at 90º and meeting this line with a 45º cut. Repeat until the hole resembles a smile that exposes the hollow tube within.
Next, find a round stick that is a touch wider than the end of the whistle and strip away the outer bark until it fits in the tube all the way up to edge of the voicing mouth. Then slice it a flat top with one or two decisive strokes and push it snugly into place. Cover the other end and blow. The flat surface allows the air to hit the voicing mouth cleanly, whereupon it splits to produce the whistle noise.
Regardless of where you source your elder, make a patch of woodland your workshop. Carving is one of the most therapeutic pastimes possible. It is psycho- and physiotherapy, pulling us out of our everyday worries and stresses with gentle focus. The level of concentration required also renders the work delightfully silent labour, leaving our ears open to the sounds of nature all around.
Part of the thrill of British woodland is the stark relief it gives us from our everyday existence, imparting a non-human otherness. Watching the industry of animals in autumn, even one so common as the grey squirrel or ground beetle reminds us of the mind-bogglingly varied contemporaries we share our planet with.
The elder tree has long been thought to be the favourite dwelling place of other, more mystical creatures. Faeries were once said to love the music from flutes made of this wood above all others. After some adjustments, the whistle should work wonderfully, sending sylvan notes through the trees. An elder whistle produces an organic, woody note, closer to that of a birdcall than anything else. Far from scaring away the wildlife, it is as if you’ve found the language of the forest itself.
Making and playing a whistle allows us to bottle something of the joy of the wood even when you return home. For a moment at least, when you take the whistle from a shelf and blow it, the walls and furniture of the room fade away you are back in the trees.