You can hardly knock a month that boasts the Virginia Gold Cup and the Preakness, the Kemper Open, the Flying Circus and Blue Angels, nature hikes and wildflowers, countless concerts and festivals, Memorial Day Weekend -- plus a healthy strain of the crazies.

It's May, the merriest month. Forget poor old Eliot and his April ruminations ("mixing memory and desire, breeding lilacs out of the dead land," blah-blah); forget Roscoe Egger, the Internal Revenue Commissioner.It's time to breathe fresh air, shake off cynicism and throw caution to the wind. Time to commune with the breeze between your ears. It's May, after all.

There's a lot to such a month: the fragrance of new grass, the blush of perfection before summer's stifling onslaught, cool still nights: enough to short the circuitry of many an urban sprawler. There's also the usual complement of parades, strolls through woods, balloon races, hayrides and hoedowns; potato salad, racks of lamb, kegs of beer: things that shout for a crowd.

And zaniness -- which is really the soul of May.

Take the Markland Medieval Mercenary Militia, which plans to muster for a couple of parades -- Arlington on May 9 and Cheverly on May 16, both at 10 -- as well as for a "Tin Pan Alley" happening at Glen Echo Park on Sunday, May 10, at 1. A few weeks back, at the Cherry Blossom Festival, they were a river of axes and shields.

"Alms, alms for the poor," yelled Colin Crain, a high-school student from Columbia, as he staggered along Constitution Avenue with a tin cup. "I'm a leper, don't you see." Pat Bertolini, of suburban Maryland, marched in the mob with her two young sons. "Children for sale," she cried as they strained at a leather leash. "They're delicious and half-housebroken". Eric Fleischer, a Washington ophthalmologist, came as a wizard, his wand belching flames and smoke. Ed Sobonsky, a lawyer from Camp Springs, wore 70 pounds of chain mail over his hairshirt and swung a double-headed axe. Soldiers slew one another at every turn, then arose from the asphalt to fight again.

It being May, most folks are happy to indulge such whimsy. Probably you, too, possess the genius to bring things off, so telling you how to pass this month comes dangerously close to presumption. But because one is entitled also to be presumptuous in May, here are several suggestions:

The forces of fun having wasted no time, you can catch May's spirit right away. Starting Friday, the Smithsonian's Museum of American History weighs in with a three-day county fair -- sword-swallowers, sideshows and such, as well as vaudeville hoofers and a ferris wheel -- while on Saturday, it's the Washington Navy Yard's Spring Festival -- bands, dancers and ships to explore -- all of which makes for a big city's answer to the doings out in the country.

Chief among the rustic stuff is the Virginia Gold Cup on Saturday at the Broadview Course in Warrenton, where horsey types and hoi polloi won't have their picnics disturbed either by hurdle races or by a live broadcast of the Kentucky Derby piped through on loudspeakers. The first of six chases, as they're called, starts at 1:30, but better arrive a couple of hours early for a parking spot near the course (call 347-2612).

As for matters woolly and wild, you can have your choice this weekend of any number of sheep festivals -- "Eat Lamb, Wear Wool" goes the motto -- and open-air parties, to wit: the Chester Farms Wool Fair and International Sheep Dog Trials (Saturday and Sunday in Raphine, Virginia), the Sheep and Wool Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship, Maryland (also held both days, featuring a sheep-shearing contest on Sunday morning at 10) and a demonstration of wool preparation, on Saturday and Sunday, at the National Colonial Farm in Accokeek, Maryland.

Then there's also Saturday's Scottish Festival, with pipe bands and Highland dancing, at Peary High School in Rockville at 7:30, the Spring Farm Festival, with hayrides and nature walks, at the Hard Bargain Farm in Accokeek, and Sunday's Montpelier Spring Festival at the Montpelier Mansion in Laurel -- the last two part of Prince George's Country's month-long celebration of the arts. Farther afield, there's the Gettysburg Blue Grass Festival, picking away at the Granite Hill Family Camp Ground (Friday through Sunday, call 717/642-8749).

In Glenns, Virginia, meanwhile, Saturday marks the Dragon Run Forklife Festival at Rappahannock Community College's South Campus, with forgotten crafts like broom-making and chair-caning, plus a frog jumping contest of the sort Mark Twain made famous. The contest is B.Y.O.F., so keep an eye out for a pond on the way. On Sunday, menwhile, a "Rottenest Sneaker" competition ("The judges will go by smell and how raunchy it looks," says a staffer) highlights the Rockville Day festivities at the Rockville Civic Center.

Also Sunday, the Flying Circus Aerodrome, on Route 17 near Bealeton, Virginia, launches a season of dogfights and other skyward feats (703/842-2504), stages an old-timey Black-powder Muzzle Loaders Shoot, and Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna bows with a free band concert at 2, part of the "Concert in the Meadows" series that fills three Sundays in May. Closer to home, Friendship House brings you Market Day -- crafts, food and pony rides on Seventh Street between Pennsylvania and North Carolina Avenues SW -- and the Gangplank Marina, at 600 Water Street SW, offers up a "Blessing of the Fleet" at 1, with a 200-yacht procession gliding past on the Potomac.

Weekends, of course, are not the only times to plumb the great outdoors. Most weekdays this month hold the promise of quick fix or even a game of hooky. During the week starting Monday, for instance, you can: attend free noontime concerts at Alexandria's Market Square; look for wildflowers along the Potomac with a park ranger from the Riverbend Nature in Great Falls (Tuesday at 10); take a hike at the Sully Plantation in Chantilly (Wednesday at 10), roam around Green Spring Farm in Annandale (Wednesday at 1) or go on a nighttime stroll at Lake Accotink Park in Virginia (Wednesday at 9). And Thursday at noon, you can hear the Johnson Mountain Boys, of bluegrass fame, get in some licks in front of the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress.

The weekend starting Saturday, May 9, might be a good time to think about heading for Baltimore. The Preakness Festival -- a week of parades, concerts and regattas, all leading up to the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown, Pimloco's 106th Preakness Stakes on Saturday the 16th -- takes off with an early-morning (that's 7:30) hot-air balloon race at Druid Hill Park. Stick around and you can join such Preakness sidelights as Cylburn Market Day, a festival of treasure hunts and trail tours at Baltimore's Cylburn Park, a procession of antique fire engines from the McCormick Spice Building to Fort McHenry, and a women's yacht race at the Inner Harbor.

For a steed of different color, there's the Philomont Horse Show on Saturday and Sunday at the horse show grounds in Virginia, and Saturday in Frederick lots of pony and hay rides at Prospect High School's Spring Festival Hoe-Down. Out of the saddle, there's Expo '81 on Saturday at he Anacostia Naval Air Station and the fairgrounds in Gaithersburg and Manassas -- you need room for 30,000 Boy Scouts -- plus a celebration of Asian-Pacific American heritage on Saturday at the Washington Monument. And Sunday, it's an International Gala -- food, music and crafts -- at Lee District Park in Fairfax. That's Sunday the 10th, remember, so you might want to bring your mother.

If it weren't for the Preakness, and a party about the size and shape of Woodstock on the Pimlico infield, the weekend of Friday the 15th might pass for a fistival of fish and water. It starts that Friday with "The Awakening," a celebration of "a cleaner, fishable Potomac River" put on by the Washington Area Waterfront Action Group at Consitution Gardens on the Mall. Highlights of the event, which runs through Sunday the 17th include a "touch tank" filled with friendly, non-biting fish, a talking trout who'll answer any questions that a talking trout could answer, and a large display of animals to be found in the Potomac: black bass, carp, crappie, perch and sunfish.

On Saturday, the 16th and Sunday the 17th, meanwhile, the town of Snow Hill, Maryland, presents a daylong Water Festival, "Magical Moments and Riverside Romance," which features, aside from Eastern Shore cuisine, canoe races and a jousting contest on the banks of the Pocomoke River. And the next day, it's "Leave It to Beaver" in Alexandria's Huntley Meadows Park, a jaunt to one of the critters' dams for a bit of nighttime hijinks (call 768-2525 for reservations).

The weekend starting Friday the 22nd, meanwhile, takes on a military mien, what with Commissioning Week cranking up at the Naval Academy, an evening march at the Marine Barracks and reenactments of historic battles in Manassas and Big Pool, Maryland. That Friday at 4:30 on the Naval Academy grounds, a "Plebe Recognition" ceremony has hundreds of freshmen trying to scale a concrete obelisk named for Commander William Lewis Herndon. Tradition has it that the plebe who grabs the cap on top becomes the first admiral in his (or her) class. The monument, to a man who went down with his ship in 1857, will be greased by the seniors for the occasion. Later that day, around 8, the Marines step lively for a Friday Evening Parade, featuring the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and Silent Drill Team near the barracks at Eighth and I Streets SW. The parades run every Friday through the summer.

On Saturday the 23rd and Sunday the 24th, you can choose between two cases of combat: the First Battle of Manassas, with infrantry, artillery and cavalry from the Civil War at Bull Run Regional Park (for details call 278-8800) and the Fort Frederick Rendezvous with units from the French and Indian War, at Fort Frederick State Park in Big Pool (call 301/842-2504). For both events, drills and parades are the order of the first day, while actual battles get fought the next, all in appropriate outfits. And at 3:30 on Monday the 25th, when Memorial Day's observed, the Navy's precision flyers, the Blue Angels, swoop over Annapolis for a jetage ballet.

The 25th, it happens, is also a day for music, with a jazz festival on Market Square in Alexandria at noon, and a free concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol by the National Symphony Orchestra.

Meanwhile, there's the music of a perfectly sunk putt, as the Kemper Open tees off that Monday at the Congressional Country Club. The $400,000 prize money will draw such masters of the green as John Mahaffey, Gary Player, Lee Elder and Johnny Miller -- who in turn will attract thousands of golf fans to the manicured grounds. Monday the 25th through Wednesday the 27th are set aside for practice and qualifying rounds as well as a Pro-Am tournament, and play runs in earnest from Thursday the 28th through Sunday the 31st.

Tailgating and kibitzing, best conducted in whispers, are par for the course. For particulars call 320-4100.