You wouldn’t think someone from my neck of the woods would have a favorite loblolly pine tree. The things are so ubiquitous, it’s almost like having a fondness for one specific blade of grass. But I do have a favorite: a particularly majestic old Pinus taeda that I reckon is at least 150 years old—perhaps much older. It’s oddly the only pine on my property. It’s also the only tree of mine I can see out my office window. And of all the trees that were here when I bought the house a quarter-century ago, it’s one of only two that remain.
And it’s dying.
After surviving multiple hurricanes in my time here, not to mention more severe thunderstorms than I care to count, increasingly intense weather finally took its toll in July of this past year. Horrendous straight-line winds ripped the top right out of Old Lolly, trapping my next-door neighbor in her house for the better part of a day and ripping down power lines so forcefully that they nearly pulled the utility pole across the street out of the ground.
If this is indeed the end, I want to preserve something of that old tree’s soul, so I had the bright idea that I would try to collect some seeds from the cones that dropped this fall and do my best to raise a viable seedling or three. And since my wife and I plan on moving north to the land of unsweet tea and four actual seasons sometime in the not-too-distant future—mostly to get out ahead of the inevitable climate migration—I decided I would train at least one of its offspring as a bonsai so we could bring a piece of home with us.
Mind you, not only have I never raised a tree from seeds, much less ones I harvested myself, but I also barely qualify as a bonsai novice. So I’ve spent the last few months scouring bonsai subreddits and watching bonsai YouTube channels, and if I’ve learned anything from it all, it’s this: there are infinitely more ways of doing bonsai wrong than there are of doing it right.
It’s frankly terrifying, and all of my reading and viewing has convinced me that I’m going to screw this up. It’s going to be a disaster. I’ll eventually share progress photos out of pride, only to have some snob describe my work as amateurish, or mansplain all the ways in which he would have trimmed it or wired it or decandled it differently or not decandled it at all. I’ve seen way too much of that here recently.
To wit: I found one gentleman online who works wonders with loblolly bonsais, and a story about him featured some really lovely inspiration in the form of a pine originally collected here in Alabama with lustworthy needle reduction and perfect foliage pads after a few years’ work.
But, of course, the one remark that drew my eye in the comments section came from someone who wrote off that near-perfect bonsai completely because of its lack of nebari (exposed root structure). I got so discouraged by that comment, and so crippled by analysis paralysis, that I almost forgot to collect the cones Old Lolly dropped this year—perhaps the last it will ever drop. Why bother? There’s no way I’m not going to do a piss-poor job of this. If the work of a bonsai master like Andrew Robson is derided by random dudebros on the web, what chance do I have of making something worth looking at?
And then I remembered a mantra I’ve seen a lot on the internet in recent years, especially in my neurodivergent support groups:
Anything worth doing is worth doing badly
In short, the sentiment boils down to this: Although we’re conditioned to believe that anything worth doing must be done well or not at all, the most worthwhile of life’s pursuits are so important that they’re worth doing even if we suck at them. Apple aficionados like me are constantly reminded that any day in which we don’t fill all three activity rings on our Watches is a complete failure. But isn’t it better to fill only two rings halfway than to fill none of them at all?
Too depressed to brush your teeth for the prescribed two minutes, twice a day? Thirty seconds is better than nothing. Contrary to popular belief, the more important something is, the more important it is to give it your best effort, even if—hell, especially if—the best effort you can muster is half-assed.
Now, I’m sure even the most vocal proponents of this philosophy would admit that some human activities should be exempted. Proctology and structural engineering come to mind. But generally speaking, most human endeavors that fall under the domain of self-improvement are better done poorly than not at all.
OK, but what does any of this have to do with hi-fi?
The whole episode with Old Lolly and nearly giving up on bonsai, and then remembering a semi-banal adage that changed my mind, made me think about my first real stereo system because that’s just how my brain works. That mid-’80s setup was a temporary hand-me-down from a new replacement uncle who let it live at my house for a while since my aunt said he had to get it out of hers. If memory serves, he was something like her third or fourth husband, so it’s no surprise that I didn’t get to hang on to that system for long.
During our time together, I honestly did that system no favors. I kept the speakers parked right up next to the rack, maybe two feet apart. They were shoved up against the wall and not toed in even a little. And worst of all, I sat beside the system instead of in front of it to do my listening, most of which boiled down to cassettes from Run DMC, Culture Club, and Don Williams, as well as off-air mixtapes I recorded from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 broadcasts.
In short, in any sense that really matters, I set that system up badly and I didn’t feed it very good listening material. But you know what? My fondness for it stuck with me, and when I eventually bought my own house and set up my next component stereo system, after a long stream of increasingly massive boomboxes, that setup sucked a little less than my first one did. At the very least, the speakers actually pointed toward me.
And then I toed them in a little. And then I moved them out from the wall a little more. And then I replaced them with better speakers. And then at some point I stumbled upon the notion, in some audio magazine or another, that the most important component of any sound system is the room, so I started making improvements there. But to be honest with you, if the internet had existed in its current form back in the mid ’90s, I don’t think I would have ever put together a halfway decent stereo system.
That seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Today’s information superhighway gives us instant access to a near-infinite well of resources about electronics, acoustics, speaker setup, and so forth. The problem, of course, is that it’s also full of opinionated hobbyists who enjoy giving the impression that anything less than perfection when it comes to audio reproduction is tantamount to heresy. And they all seem to live online.
Granted, not every online audiophile is a hardliner. I’d be willing to bet that most aren’t. When SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider posts on Facebook from time to time about real-world systems he’s stumbled across on Reddit, there are always a handful of laugh-emoji reactions, as well as derisive comments from elitists who would rather shame the normies than contribute to a more ecumenical hobby.
But most of the comments are actually more reflective, more pragmatic, and there’s almost always a comment or two from speaker designer Andrew Jones about how he cherishes seeing non-audiophile hi-fi setups, as it sometimes influences his product development, especially on the more affordable end of the spectrum.
If you’re just getting into hi-fi, listen to the Doug Schneiders and Andrew Joneses of the world, not the fedora-wearing octogenarians who think audiophilia should be an exclusive hobby rather than an inclusive one.
And I’m not saying you should deliberately half-ass your stereo setup, of course. I want you to have good speakers and good electronics, and I don’t want you to spend a ton of dough acquiring them—unless you want to. I want you to know how to tame the bass in your room without screwing up the mids and highs. I want to help you figure out how to buy the right speakers and amp for your space.
But sometimes other considerations take higher priority. Over the autumn, I had a nice back-and-forth with a reader who was asking for some guidance on their first proper hi-fi system. After looking over some photos of the room, my recommendation was twofold: Firstly, the system needed to be rotated 180°, because some asymmetries in the back wall were making proper speaker placement practically impossible, but the opposite wall was much more conducive (and had the added benefit of a little more wiggle room to spread the speakers out on either side of their TV). Secondly, the room looked way too darned small for the big three-way towers that had just been purchased for the space.
I asked if the speakers were within their return window. They were. I suggested a pair of standmount speakers from the same line, as well as a small subwoofer or two, since it was obvious to me from a glance that the optimal speaker positions for soundstaging and imaging were not anywhere near where you’d want your bass coming from. I also recommended some locations on the other side of the room where the speakers and sub(s) might deliver optimal results.
They thanked me for my advice and admitted that rotating all the furniture was too much effort and wouldn’t really work for their lifestyle, but they liked the idea of swapping the towers for a 2.2-channel system.
To be frank, one fix without the other is only going to improve the sound of their system so much. But you know what? It’s going to improve the sound of their system some. And anything that moves us in the right direction is a good thing.
Zen and the art of refrigerating seeds and listening to music
As I write, we’re rapidly approaching what passes for winter here in Alabama, and by the time you read this, we’ll likely have had some occasional temperatures in the teens or low 20s Fahrenheit (-5° to -10° Celsius). I did manage to collect some cones dropped by Old Lolly, and I extracted what seeds I could before it was too late, before the birds and gardeners wiped out what remained. I think I got maybe ten viable seeds out of an afternoon’s effort. By the time next autumn rolls around, I think this old tree will be stacked in my dad’s firewood shed.
In short, if I want to preserve any element of this beloved old pine, this is my one shot. The seeds are stratifying in the fridge now. I’ll plant them soon. Out of ten seeds, three might become seedlings. And of those, one might survive long enough for me to turn it into a pitiful attempt at a bonsai.
But that’s OK. If I end up with something that looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree in a few years, I’ll consider it a roaring success. Not because of the results, but because of the effort. If nothing else, I’ll have given this old tree the only sort of arboreal afterlife I can.
And I tell you all of this because if, for whatever reason, you’ve decided it’s not worth the effort to assemble a decent component stereo system because “decent” is the best you think you’ll ever be able to do—just do it. Listening to music has been demonstrated to improve mental and cardiovascular health. And mind you, that’s true whether you listen to an old clock radio or a system worthy of SoundStage! Ultra. But if I can help you figure out how to improve your setup or system or room acoustics, all the better, because that means you’ll be more likely to listen to it more frequently.
In an ideal world, we would all have at least one good hi-fi system we could enjoy regularly. But we don’t live in an ideal world. So if you can’t do hi-fi well, go ahead and shove those bookshelf speakers into a console. Lie them on their side. Sit beside your speakers instead of in front of them. Cram full-range towers into a Brooklyn apartment the size of a closet if that’s all you’ve got.
I wish you wouldn’t. I wish you’d at least put in enough effort to have a good stereo image, decent bass, and reasonably neutral midrange because I think those are worthwhile pursuits. But if your choice is between a bad hi-fi system and no hi-fi system at all, do it badly. It’s worth it.
. . . Dennis Burger