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Michael Darling, champion of Bermuda cedars and open space

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Michael Darling in his garden in Warwick (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

One hundred cedar trees grow on the side of a steep hill on Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Darling’s property in Warwick.

The 92-year-old says the grove is not in the best location, and yet the trees are doing well, standing at ten to 15ft high after 15 years in the ground.

“Cedars were made for Bermuda,” he said. “They have the ability to drive their roots into rock and survive in dry spots and salty spots. They can manage anywhere in Bermuda.”

But back in 1949, Bermuda’s cedars were under attack from an army of scale insects.

Michael Darling has been an advocate for open spaces in Bermuda (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

At age 19, Lt Col Darling found himself on the frontline of a desperate battle to save them.

“When I came home on a gap year, between boarding school and university, almost every tree was dead or dying,” he said. “It looked like New England in winter. It was absolutely, in every way, depressing.”

He went to work for Agriculture and Fisheries, where he had helped out as a child. Horticulturalists there were combating the pest by introducing ladybird beetles to eat the scale insect.

“The beetles were imported from every country in the world and bred in trays in the lab,” he said. “They fed on the scale which was grown on potatoes which went rotten and stank.”

Lt Col Darling spent months tramping around Bermuda, releasing the beetles into Bermuda’s cedars.

“It was hard work, but it was good and I was a scientist,” he said.

But things did not go as planned. Lt Col Darling and his colleagues would return a few months later to find that the beetle larvae were indeed feeding on the scale, but the trees were still dying.

It turned out the beetle larvae were reintroducing poison from the scale, back into the trees on a microscopic level.

“It was damn bad luck,” Lt Col Darling said. “So the beetle just did not do the job. I don’t think it made things any worse. It just joined the happy throng of things killing the trees.

“In nature, if you kill your host you kill yourself, so the thing eventually levelled off. Then there was another scale that started in Harrington Sound.

“That did a hell of a job killing all of the cedars. That was a different type of scale.”

It is thought that the scale was accidentally imported on other plants in 1942. But after the blight started, there were lone cedars that seemed strangely unaffected.

“There was one notable tree in Paget, on the way to what is now the Bermuda College,” Lt Col Darling said. “It remained as green as grass.”

It was later decided that some of these holdout trees were a slightly different variation, Juniper virginiana instead of Juniper bermudiana.

Bermuda lost 95 per cent of its cedar trees.

Today, many of the cedars growing are a cross between Juniper virginiana and Juniper bermudiana.

Lt Col Darling went on to study agriculture at Jesus College at Cambridge University in Cambridge, England.

There was no deep reason for agriculture. He just wanted to do some type of science, and the agricultural programme meant less time spent in laboratories and more time outside in the fresh air working on the university’s farm, which he enjoyed.

When Lt Col Darling finished his studies, his father, Leslie Darling, suddenly became ill. Lt Col Darling stepped in to take over his father’s business at Bluck’s on Front Street, and ran it with his late brother, Peter Darling.

“I built it into a much bigger business than my father did,” Lt Col Darling said.

Today, he has mixed feelings about not doing more with his science background.

“Maybe I should have been more ambitious,” he said, “but in some ways I am glad I was not.”

In the 1970s, business boomed. The firm’s china, crystal and antiques were cheaper in Bermuda than in the United States, and tourists snapped them up, and lugged them home.

“We made enough money for someone like me to buy a house,” Lt Col Darling said. “We were not just making a living; we were making money.”

He retired from Bluck’s in the 1990s, leaving the business to his son Peter. But the business climate changed dramatically in the last decade.

People started buying things on the internet, and purchased less high-end china and crystal. Bluck’s closed in 2019.

Throughout his life, Lt Col Darling has been passionate about saving Bermuda’s open spaces.

“I was head of the Bermuda National Trust at one stage,” he said. “That was a tremendous involvement of preservation of open space.”

Outside of gardening, he has also been heavily involved in the Bermuda Regiment.

“When I finished school and came back to Bermuda, I met Richie Gorham on the street,” he said. “Richie [later Sir Richard] flew spotter planes for the Royal Artillery and risked his life every day in the Second World War. He said have you joined the army? I said no, and he said get your a** up there and sign up right away!”

Lt Col Darling did as he was told, and fit right into army life.

“I loved the shooting on the weekends, the obstacle courses and being physically fit,” he said.

In the early 1960s he was commander of the Bermuda Rifles. When it merged with the Bermuda Militia Artillery to form the Bermuda Regiment in 1965, he became its third commanding officer in the early 1970s.

When he retired from the Bermuda Regiment in 1974, he sat on Bermuda’s Defence Board for several years. He was not pleased when conscription was cancelled in what is now the Royal Bermuda Regiment four years ago.

“The Bermuda Regiment was a wonderful leveller,” he said.

He has five children Holly Anne Barany, and Michael, Peter, Sean and Forster Darling, and eight grandchildren.

He and his wife, Elaine, will celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary on December 31.

“We met on the dancefloor,” he said. “She is my second wife, and more than 20 years younger than me. We were married in the Registrar’s Office straddling bags of cement and concrete block. I think the office had just opened. We have never looked back.”

• Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens each week. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published November 23, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated November 24, 2022 at 7:49 am)

Michael Darling, champion of Bermuda cedars and open space

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