PERHAPS MORE, than any other public figure of recent decades, William O. Douglas followed only his own star. Whether sitting on the bench of the Supreme Court, where he served longer than any other justice in history, or before a campfire in a desolate wilderness, he knew what he believed and what he wanted -- for himself, for his fellow citizens and for the world in which he lived.

And live in that world he did. Before being tragically stricken by illness several years ago, Justice Douglas had been almost everywhere and seen almost everything. He had participated in great decisions that shaped the future of this nation. He had been enticed by offers of high political office. He had walked the back country of this and other continents. He had listened to words of great praise for his work. And he had heard the sharpest possible denunciations of both that work and himself.

But those words seemed to have little effect on Justice Douglas. He lived his life his way. He was an individualist who believed deeply in every man's right to hold any opinion, no matter how outrageous, and express it freely. He was a loner who saw little value in conforming one's ideas and habits and personal life to the views of others.

We could write much about his contributions to the nation. His work in the New Deal left an indelible print on big business. His work on the court in defense of the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights will never disappear. His work off the bench, on conservation, foreign affairs and political philosophy, occupies a shelf in most libraries.

But others will do that, and something else seems more appropriate just now. Twenty-six years, to the day, before Justice Douglas died, we published his letter about a proposed parkway along the C & O Canal. He wrote of the area through which that road would have run:

"It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol's back door -- a wilderness area where man can be alone with his thoughts, a sanctuary where he can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns . . .

"I wish the man who wrote your editorial approving the parkway would take time off and come with me. We would go with packs on our backs and walk the 185 miles to Cumberland . . .

"He would get to know muskrats, badgers and fox; he would hear the roar of wind in thickets; he would see strange islands and promontories through the fantasy of fog; he would discover the glory there is in the first flower of spring, the glory there is even in a blade of grass; the whistling wings of ducks would make silence have new value for him."

That is the Bill Douglas we will remember. A man who would break away from a matter involving the political values he treasured most deeply -- the school desegregation cases were then awaiting decision by the court on which he sat -- to attempt to preserve a piece of land that nourished the human values he also held dear. Those two issues defined, as much as anything could, the star that he followed.