WE HAVE BEEN singing the praises of these parts from the beginning. John Smith sailed into the Chesapeake and proclaimed Virginia a paradise. Jefferson said the Potomac at Harper's Ferry was a scene worth "a voyage across the Atlantic." Looking back, we can see there was a touch of the travel agent in Smith; and Jefferson, with only "works of nature" to put against Europe's "works of art," was perhaps overemphatic in defense of the new republic. But we can imagine what they felt. These years later, the landscape has not lost its power to inspire.

In what way, is the question. Consider the diversity -- which is breathtking. Unnamed senior officials, obliged to stay in contact with the office, have within beeper range an unrivaled mixture of natural places and settings: to the west run the low-slung saddles and shoulders of the Blue Ridge. The mountains make sort of geological curtsy, dipping into the rolling hills and meadow uplands of the Piedmont. The Piedmont slopes toward that demarcation where boulders and white water blocked the passage of ships upriver -- the fall line. Here the soft clay- and-sand plains commence, the ground of tobacco fields and the intensely sociable culture of the southern plantation. (A culture so sociable that George Washington had dinner guests every night for 20 years.) And fi ground yields to the water-logged terrain fringing the Chesapeake Bay (the most productive bay on earth) and the barrier island beaches that defend the continent.

If the American West is scaled to symphonic dimensions, the topography here has the intimacy of chamber music. The hills and cardinal points seldom afford prospects of more than 10 or 20 miles. Sultry air blurs the long view. It is

"fruitful and delightsome," as John Smith promised. The Beltway is ringed by tame and cultivated country, whose forests are broken by fields, whose fields are watered by courtly rivers, whose rivers are framed by congenial hills. Geologically, it seems the earth has been to a good finishing school: erosion has softened its angles and polished its rough edges. Virginia has just the sort of look that suits Virginians. Its vignettes draw on gracious old manor houses, weathered wood barns, orderly ranks of orchards, and forthright fences. Glaciers had no hand in the lakes of Maryland; they're all man- made. There's little of New England's austerity: village life here conveys a sense of languor, not asceticism.

How we see this panoramic ensemble is as much a function of perception as real estate. Landscape is an imaginary territory, a human conceit that reflects our spiritual values, economic hopes, and historical connotations. Even at the height of the fall foliage, the sobering, hard-won silence of the cornfields at Antietam tempers the beauty of the turning leaves. And as anyone knows who has experienced love's power to turn a wasteland into a paradise (and then back into a wasteland), landscape is often a mirror of personal circumstance. The sense of place for which we search -- not to say identity itself -- can be defined as a deep feeling of concordance with the environment. For the most part now in cities, we think of nature as a welcome oddity. But on the face of it, nature has an exceptional stronghold in Washington. The city is as green as any in the world. Naturalist John Burroughs once wrote: "There is perhaps not another city in the Union that has on its very threshold so much natural beauty and grandeur such as men seek for in the remote forests and mountains." To grasp his point, one has only to step into the ravine of Rock Creek. (The creek flows along the seam between the Piedmont and the coastal plain.) Within the mottled understory of magnificent shade trees, the air is scented with honeysuckle, and the clamor of the city is subsumed by the sound of running water. The city's inventory of creatures lists more than 300 varieties of brids and 94 kinds of fish.

Burroughs, of course, was unfamiliar with Tyson's Corner as we know it today.

If nature is woven into Washington, one still has to wonder how much bearing the land has on the culture of the city. Setting certainly can mold character: Seattle attracts the sort of resident who enjoys the cameo appearances of Mount Rainier enough to put up with the rain. But the countryside of Washington is easy to overlook. I used to wonder what effect it would have if members of congress had to ride to work across 40 miles of alkalai flats, or if the Appalachians were as big once were). Would another climate, a different terrain, change the texture of life in the capital? What would happen were lawyers, policy analysts and political columnists subjected to a daily brief from the wilderness?

I think it can be argued that for all the trees and parks and gardens, for all the billions of blossoms that erupt every spring, the Washington landscape has an unnatural aspect, a self-consciousness that undercuts its claim on us. The humidity reminds us of the city's inorganic origins: politicians picked this swamp. Squares and parks are glossed with symbolism. The theatre of official life turns every place into a stage; and an air of unreality obscures the prospects down L'Enfant's boulevards. The whole town seems like a backdrop for the evening news.

No wonder we evacuate eagerly, looking for the tonic of the woods. Harper's Ferry, which so impressed Jefferson, is a scene of inarguable beauty. Yet European tourists are not streaming over for a glimpse, and Jefferson's enthusiasm seems precious. The context of the land -- even at Harper's Ferry -- has changed radically. The visceral impact of the New World is as lost on us as childhood is to the adult in middle age.

In Man in the Landscape, Paul Shepard asserts: "To those who sit by the lone sea, breakers come the heartbreaking terror and the mantle of prophecy, the ecstasy of divine fear, and the sudden, awful awareness of self in space and time." To think that he could have been describing a beach at Ocean City before it became The Beach at Ocean City!

We don't expect great revelations from our landscape anymore. Nature in these parts has lost the power to evoke the ecstasy of divine fear, of any religious experience except those having to do with prayer in schools, or some such issue. The totems of wildness have vanished. The wilderness is gone, and with it, the mantle of prophecy. The view from our windows -- when affording us a glimpse of nature at all -- lacks the land's ultimate power.

We range the widest horizons. Satellites make our maps. But are we any less bewildered than those misguided explorers who once thought the Potomac was the Northwest Passage? More and more we seem to miss a wildness -- in land, in ourselves. Perhaps they are one and the same.

I remember accounts of occasions when a black bear would caper out of the Shenandoah, and then lead the local cops on an antic chase through mall parking lots and backyard sandboxes.

I pulled for the bear. Didn't you?