Alder whistles and tree sap

Back when I was a kid, I loved spring time. At school we had our marble competitions, and at home, my dad was busy cutting alder branches to make his home made whistles. “You have to wait for the sap to run before you can make a good whistle” Dad would say, as he crafted those little whistles.I had whistles of every note, and although tone deaf, I managed to play a few tunes all on my own.

My dad was a natural musician; he taught himself to play guitar from listening to country songs on the radio, and he taught himself to play the whistle from a skill handed down from his grandfather. I remember him holding five whistles, and together, he played a serenade of beautiful music. It is terrible how skills like this are lost through the ages, whistle making used to be something that fathers passed to their kids; nowadays not many have this talent.

Dad would take an alder, which is a birch-like tree that grows abundantly here on the island, and bend it to his ear. He would then tap the alder to see whether it was sound. I am not sure whether this made any difference to the finished product, he always said that it did. The next step, he would cut a six or eight inch length from the alder, always using the newest branches, and he would cut each end square.

Once he had the branch cut, he would hold the blade of a pocketknife and using the handle, he would tap along the ends of the alder, loosening the bark. He would then score a line two inches from each end, moisten the bark in his mouth,and magically, the bark would slide right off. “You have to be careful not to tear the bark, as this will be needed later” he would say, as he continued with his musical craft.

Then my dad would whittle a small slice into each end of the alder stick, “The deeper the hole the deeper the note” he would instruct. Once this was done, he would slide the bark back over the end of the stick, to see if it fit properly. Removing the bark one final time, he carefully cut a long slice away from the stick, from one end to the edge of the wedge, and then he would replace the bark.From time to time, he made a whistle on each end of the stick, each of a different note.

Magically, he transformed a short piece of alder stick into a whistle. He then played a jig on the two sided whistle that he had made. My dad loved making those whistles almost as much as we kids did playing them.

My son was up at my dad’s the other day; he was sitting next to my dad, almost hypnotized as dad carefully crafted a whistle for him, just like he did for me, all those years ago. This weekend, I will try to make my first whistle for my son. Hopefully he will pass this skill on to his son someday.

6 thoughts on “Alder whistles and tree sap

  1. Absolutely true about the skills that seem to get lost over time. Yeah, new skills are found, but there’s something special about parents and children bonding over something like that…
    Makes me envy your lifestyle a bit.

  2. My grandfather Told me, but never showed me, how to do this. I tried several times. I understood the theory, but could never get the bark to come loose and slide off. I finally gave up without a sucess, and haven’t thought of whistle-making for years.

  3. Thank you for this post. Brought back memories of childhood and of an Uncle who would make these for us when we would go out of the city to property the folks owned for hotdog roasts etc, He would make whistles for us kids and we thought he was truly, amazing, incredible. It was magical.

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