A Pundit on the Trail

By Jonathan Katz

In a war-torn election season, punditry is everywhere. Pundits prattle and pontificate about politics. It’s what they do. Or do they?

The first Pundits were Hindus from the Tibetan border, who agreed to serve as British spies, helping to map the Himalayas in Tibet. They took these risks for British intelligence and as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of 1866. The Pundits disguised themselves as monks and crossed into Tibet from Nepal. They had been trained not to vary the length of their stride, regardless of the terrain, and kept track of distance by surreptitiously moving their prayer beads, 100 steps to the bead. Every tenth bead was larger — a thousand paces, about half a mile. They made it to Lhasa, and elsewhere, computing distances by counting their steps. In this way, and in secret, they provided England with the raw data to make the first maps of the southern Tibet trade route and elsewhere in the mountains.

I tried my hand at punditry on the Branford Land Trust’s Red Hill Woods Bog Walk, keeping count of the planks that make up the trail. The boards were 12 feet long. I stepped onto the first board. One! Walk the length of the board, step across the crack…two! Another five or six paces…three! Each time I stepped onto a new one, the count went up by one. I counted 96 pairs of boards, 192 in all, laid in two parallel rows and nailed to logs and other cross-ties. The boards were 2 inch by 8 inch planks, all carried in by hand and nailed or screwed down by hand onto ties arranged for the purpose. Make no mistake: the trail crew that built the Bog Walk did some hard, backache-making labor. They laid an elevated pathway about 1200 feet long, through bog and over water, and made it easy for us to explore some swampy low places and small streams that would otherwise be difficult and unpleasant to access. You may hear the sound of one frog, splashing.

I did not count the planks that had been sawed up for bridges, and I did not estimate the length of the bridges. My spymaster did not train me to do that. Walking and counting steps, or the cracks between planks, requires unbending concentration. Let your mind wander and you lose count. I might have missed a board or two, but I don’t think so.

As to the Pundits, the maps produced from their efforts proved that as they hiked up and down the Himalayan mountain passes, they were good step-counters. Considering that previously there were no maps at all, the Pundits did well. So did the people who designed and built the Bog Walk.

I was out there on a nice crisp Saturday afternoon in October, and saw nobody else. If you haven’t explored the Bog Walk in Red Hill Woods yet, you are missing a treat.  (Directions: From Leetes Island Road, turn onto Red Hill Road and continue past Van Wie Pond to the very end of the road. Park along the gravel lane. Those choosing to go on the full mile walk should expect moderate terrain, with some sloping trails and inclines. Bring water. Walking sticks and bug spray welcome. Please consider carpooling as parking may be limited.)

For more on the Pundits, and the Great Game between England and Russia for control of Afghanistan and the surrounding terrain, read Tournament of Shadows by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac.