WHERE ARE the wetlands? Which way does the river flow? Do we still hear the mockingbird? Every day in some part of Maryland, highway construction fills the air with dust, new malls disrupt quiet communities, industrial parks replace farmlands.
This view becomes more alarming when we realize that the noise, traffic snarls and highway fumes will only overtake more of nature.
We could continue to accept sprawling growth as developments settle over cool woodlands and highways crash through wetlands. Or we could do something sensible such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) task force is trying to do: plan the area's development for the immediate future and the next 30 years.
But more than planning is needed to bring about a vision for a healthy economy and an improved quality of life. The next few months will show whether the COG's vision will go the way of others onto dusty shelves or be put into effect.
Last month, COG's task force addressed major issues of growth: transportation, economic development, environment, housing and jobs. Economists, lawyers, politicians, businessmen all have a say here. Long-range plans were discussed for light-rail and metro corridors reaching out from the center, with clusters of villages or cities and highways connecting them in concentric circles.
The head of the COG environmental policy committee pointed out that better stewardship is needed for the land in order to provide essential clean air, water, open spaces throughout the region and to protect the Chesapeake Bay itself.
We need to do more than reiterate these goals over and over. We already have set environmental goals and are starting to plan how to reach them. But now we need action -- strong, tough decisions on how to act. We need to plot the city clusters and transportation lines in accordance with the physical layout of our region's environment.
Instead of drawing a tidy symmetrical grid of the expanding metropolitan area on two-dimensional paper, we need to think in a dynamic three dimensions: where the hills and valleys are, where are the steep slopes. We should plot the flow of the rivers and tributaries and plan buffers to keep them clear.
Which way does the groundwater flow? Where are the aquifers we must keep free of pollution? Where are drinking-water reservoirs? We need to study Department of Natural Resources maps of area wetlands, of critical habitats: swamps and estuaries, riverbanks and flood plains, the Bay. How far does the noise zone extend from Dulles?
We need to know where the fragmented forests still stand and the remaining woodlands offering quiet contemplation. We need analysis of the soil to keep our farms and pastures intact and productive.
Much of this information is available, in state and regional geological and hydrological surveys, farmland analyses and government forestry files. It should be released to regional planners and then used.
Ian McHarg's book, ''Design with Nature,'' established clear guidelines for planning of potentially congested areas. He advocates drawing regional maps on transparent sheets laid one over another.
On one sheet geologists draw land configurations: steep slopes, cliffs, hillocks and valleys. Another sheet of hydrology depicts waterways, wetlands, aquifers and underground springs. Others reveal analyses of clay, sand and other soils, existing highways and railroad tracks, power lines, water and sewer pipes, cities, suburbs and developments. Put all these complex, transparent maps together and you get a comprehensive view.
With our metropolitan area developing swiftly, we may already be too late to plan the most logical and pleasant future growth into sane and healthy communities. Comprehensive plans had been drawn 30 years ago, when regional planning was discussed. What happened to those plans?
Now a juggernaut of undisciplined sprawl is rolling over the countryside. We should be making decisions of where and how we live, work and play.
The COG task force has a schedule: Sept. 26, the first report is due on issues and analysis; by late October and November, draft reports are due; in December, the final draft is to go to the COG board.
We need continued interaction with the natural world to find our own inner peace in a region becoming more damaged each day by overloaded population, machines, traffic and noises of crowding civilization.
We hope the decision makers will find their way out of the gridlock of indecision and design with nature, not against it.