Chapter VI - Visual Characteristics of the Piedmont Savanna
Unfortunately, no pictorial images of the Piedmont savanna landscape are
known to survive from the colonial period. Colonial art work dealt mainly
with identifying and categorizing detailed aspects of the flora and fauna,
not with the landscape as a whole (Weekley 3). In such illustrations by
Bartram, Catesby, White and others, landscapes occasionally appear as background;
however none of them were found to be Piedmont landscapes. Artistic exploration
of southern landscapes in paintings did not begin until after settlement.
Therefore, recreating an image of the savannas will depend on the written
accounts of explorers, visual attributes of remnant eastern North American
savannas, and the ecology already discussed in Chapter V.
Early explorers seem to have found the Piedmont savanna a "salubrious"
environment, much to their liking. Other adjectives they used in describing
Piedmont savannas include pleasant, fine, beautiful, charming, rich, and
desirable. Such an appreciation may have been due to reasons similar to
those discussed in the section on landscape preference, although there were
also other motives. In a time well before the advent of modern medicine,
peoples of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries struggled
continually with diseases and epidemics. Low, wet, warm environments, where
air did not circulate, were justly considered unhealthy and undesirable.
The "good" air of the open woodlands and savannas of the elevated Piedmont
presented a wholesome and preferable climate:
The Countrey here, though high, is level, and for the most part a rich
soyl, as I judged by the growth of the Trees; yet where it is inhabited
by Indians, it lies open in spacious Plains, and is blessed with very healthful
Air,... (Lederer 24)
Besides their healthy quality, savannas also presented a bucolic aspect,
easily recognizable to European arrivals. Foote recreates the scene in North
Extensive tracts of country between the Yadkin and the Catawba, now waving
with thrifty forests, then were covered with tall grass, with scarce a bush
or shrub, looking at first view as if immense grazing farms had been at
once abandoned, the houses disappearing, and the abundant grass luxuriating
in its native wildness and beauty, the wild herds wandering at pleasure,
and nature rejoicing in undisturbed quietness. (Foote 189)
Perhaps it is best summed up by Bartram as "a beautiful landscape diversified
with groves and lawns." (313)
Some Midwestern savannas provide a glimpse of the potential appearance
of the presettlement Piedmont savanna. As fire-dependent communities, Midwestern
savannas are scarce in today's landscape, so their current appearance may
only be a shadow of the past. Perhaps it would be appropriate to keep in
mind James Fenimore Cooper's description when viewing these remnants:
Although wooded, it was not as the American forest is wont to grow, with
tall straight trees towering towards the light, but with intervals between
the low oaks that were scattered profusely over the view, and with much
of that air of negligence that one is apt to see in grounds, where art is
made to assume the character of nature. ...the variety is produced by their
distribution. In places they stand with a regularity resembling that of
an orchard; then, again, they are more scattered and less formal, while
wide breadths of the land are occasionally seen in which they stand in copses,
with vacant spaces, that bear no small affinity to artificial lawns, being
covered with verdure. (Cooper 10-11)
In the lower Piedmont, pine may have dominated many savanna landscapes.
Visual representations of these savannas might be found in images of pine
savannas in the Coastal Plain and Sand Hills or even in the managed pine
woodlands of the Piedmont National Forests.
Figure 6.1 Oak Savanna at Illinois Beach State Park (photo by author).
Figure 6.2 Pine savanna near Thomson, Georgia (photo by author 1997).
Figure 6.3 Burkes Mountain savanna (photo by author, 1997).
Figure 6.4 Post oak savanna in near Edgefield, South Carolina (photo by
Within the Piedmont, there are only a couple of modern "natural" landscapes
that may possess the visual characteristics of the former savannas. Burkes
Mountain (Figure 6.3), a very rare community, offers some of the aesthetically
preferred appearance of savanna structure in a Piedmont setting. The post
oak savanna in Saluda County (Figure 6.4) is also representative, though
it is undergoing restoration and will take many years to fully regain the
visual characteristics once common in the Piedmont.
While the presettlement Piedmont savanna was not by any means an undisturbed
landscape, it could be seen, when compared to today's levels of disturbance,
as a "natural landscape". In his 1966 paper "Aesthetics of the Natural Environment,"
Dasmann identifies four characteristics typical of an undisturbed landscape
that contribute to our perception of beauty: order, diversity, health, and
function (Morrison 168). Holding these up to the Piedmont savanna gives
support to its description as aesthetically preferable. In the Piedmont
savanna order is provided by the graminoid stratum; diversity is provided
by the variations of topography, drifts of ground layer vegetation and by
the various arrangements of canopy vegetation; health, attested to by explorers,
is evidenced in the lush growth of cane and grasses and the "salubrious
breezes"; and function is shown by the abundance of animal life preferring
its edge-like environment.
Patterns and Structure
The potential appearance or visual characteristics of the Piedmont savanna
can be revealed by examining its patterns (distribution) and structure (form).
Potential relationships and specific characteristics can be examined at
both a larger landscape scale and at a finer community and species scale.
Figure 6.5 Burkes Mountain, 1941 and 1967 (USDA JO 3B 08, USDA JO 4HH 78).
Persistence over time as a topo-edaphic climax savanna community is demonstrated
where, on the upper south slope of the hill, almost the same density of
cover occurs in 1967 as in 1941. A personal exploration of the site found
similar cover present in 1997.
Landscape Patterns and Structure
Much understanding of the potential "natural design" of the Piedmont savanna
can be discovered by examining its horizontal patterns and structure at
a landscape scale. Such an examination will describe relationships and changes
in canopy vegetation distribution over the landscape as it relates to topography.
As an example, the horizontal distribution patterns of the blackjack oak
savanna on Burkes Mountain (Figure 6.5) can be observed in aerial photographs.
A table and corresponding illustration (Figures 6.6 and 6.7) have been
drawn to describe Piedmont savanna canopy distribution based on the major
controlling factors of topographic setting, soil condition, and fire regimen
as informed by this thesis. Figure 6.8 is a section representing the vertical
structure the canopy might have across a given landscape. While the information
on the table and illustrations reflects a summarization of research and
not quantitative analysis, it does offer a logical comprehensive cross section
of potential savanna landscape situations throughout the Piedmont.
Usually, well defined edges would be hard to find in the savanna, since
grassland and forest patterns grade into each other gently. For instance,
tallgrass prairie can grade for many miles through thickening oak savannas
before it becomes woodland. Abrupt boundaries, however, might be found along
rivers and places of rapid soil or topographic change (Risser et al.115).
It seems reasonable that edge definition would be weakest on flat or gently
rolling uplands of the Piedmont savanna where few sharp changes in topography
or soil take place.
The patterns of canebrakes in the landscape would have expanded and contracted
with the moist soils along drainage ways. They might have merged imperceptibly,
or transitioned sharply into meadow or woodland. The definition of canebrake
edges would have depended on soil moisture change and patterns of fire.
Whether related more to soil conditions or the play of fire on the landscape,
tree distribution in the Piedmont savanna could be described as having taken
the form of a few scattered individuals, groves of various sizes, peninsular
incursions into open space, or more or less evenly distributed trees. These
various scenarios can be seen as they relate to various topographical and
pedological conditions in Figure 6.7.
Vegetation distribution patterns often corresponded with vegetation structure
across the landscape. Figure 6.8 illustrates this relationship. The stunted,
potentially very old, low trees on uplands seen by Byrd and Hawkins appeared
primarily as scattered individuals or groves. Better developed "high forest"
trees, such as pines and white oaks, were probably more evenly distributed
on lowlands or uplands with better soil. The Revolutionary War Battle of
Cowpens in South Carolina was fought in such a savanna landscape. Actual
battle documentation can be interpreted to show in Figure 6.9 about 16 trees
with 50 ft diameter canopies just touching to occupy one acre (Westmacott
9). Where Indian agriculture opened large patches of tall lowland forests,
remaining trees would be distributed as the groves and forest appendages
often described by Bartram. Grove formations, whether short and stunted
or tall and full, would have been a key element in the aesthetic richness
of the Piedmont savanna, and are highly valued aesthetically by many people.
Many place names in the Piedmont, though not necessarily all of settlement
origin, include the word "grove," usually preceded by "oak" or "pine," and
many old farm houses can be found situated amidst groves of sometimes even
Horizontal Patterns Of The Presettlement Piedmont
Vegetation distribution related to; soil condition, fire frequency, and
The table used is drawn from conclusions made in this thesis and is organized
according to the major controlling factors of topographic setting, soil
condition, and fire regimen. It offers a generalized comprehensive cross
section of savanna landscape situations throughout the Piedmont.
Figure 6.6 Vegetation canopy distribution table.
Horizontal Patterns Of The Presettlement Piedmont
Vegetation distribution related to; soil condition, fire frequency, and
Illustration is keyed to Figure 6.6
Figure 6.7 Vegetation canopy distribution illustration.
Vertical Structure Of The Presettlement Piedmont
Vegetation structure related to; soil condition, fire frequency, and topography.
Illustration is keyed to Figure 6.6
Figure 6.8 Vegetation structure illustration.
Figure 6.9 Sixteen canopies just touching in one acre.
Figure 6.10 Grove near Ila, Georgia (photo by author)
Community Patterns and Structure
Darrel Morrison in Landscape Restoration in Response to Previous Disturbance
(169, 170) describes unique aesthetic characteristics which are typical
to the tall grass prairie ground plane which may serve as a model for the
Piedmont savanna. These characteristics include lines, texture and movement,
color, drifts, and edges. Lines, texture, and movement are evidenced in
the abundant grasses: vertical to arching lines are prevalent; there is
a fine textural quality; and movement is seen in the wavelike motion of
grasses, both symbolically and in breezy conditions. Of color, the stratum
of grasses provide a background of bright greens in the spring, to yellowish
to blue-greens in the summer, to tan, bronze, and purplish tones in the
fall and winter. Within this framework flowering forbs provide flecks of
mainly pastel colors: pinks, blues, yellows, and whites in the spring and
more dramatic golds and purples later in the season. Drifts, resulting from
microenvironmental conditions such as soil texture and moisture, and plant
reproductive strategies such as wind blown seed (Morrison, Landscape 170)
reflect the gradation of dominance of one or another species through a given
area. Edges, for similar reasons, reflect a more rapid transition from one
dominant species type to another. For instance, the "drift" of dandelions
in one's lawn reflects the prevailing westerly wind blowing them from their
source in the neighbor's weed patch; but their inability to sprout in the
driveway creates an edge. In the Piedmont savanna drifts and edges might
be revealed as purplish "drifts" of big blue stem, and as canebrakes edging
a stream. Drifting patterns of color and texture seen in the prairie (Figure
6. 11) demonstrate the patterns once found in the savanna ground layer.
Figure 6.11 Drifts of prairie flowers in a pasture near Flint, Michigan
(photo by author).
In a given plant community, certain species have a visual presence that
defines the essence of the community (Morrison, Landscape 164). Early explorers
made descriptions of Piedmont savannas that often referred to particularly
remarkable species. While their descriptions are informative, however, they
were made in the spirit of landscape as commodity, so it cannot be assumed
that the species most remarkable to them were "visual essence" species.
Even Bartram's descriptions, which are much concerned with species diversity,
do not necessarily reveal "visual essence" species. Hawkins, in descriptions
of the Black Belt Prairie and the western end of the Piedmont, reveals the
relatedness of visually key species and the commodity of rich land while
also providing a starting point for determining visual characteristic:
In the wooded parts the growth is generally post oak, and very large,
without any under brush, beautifully set in clumps. Here the soil is a dark
clay, covered with long grass and weeds, which indicate a rich soil. (Hawkins
The growth of timber is oak, hickory, and the short leaf pine; pea-vine
on the hill sides and in the bottoms, and a tall, broad leaf, rich grass,
on the richest land. The whole is a very desirable country. (Hawkins 20)
With tall grass prairie as a model for the savanna ground plane, it may
be reasonable to assume that the seed stems of the bluestems, broom sedge,
Indian grass, and plume grasses might be considered "visual essence" species
in the fall and winter season, while Baptisia and other forbs might visually
dominate the early growing season and Helianthus the later season. Of course
different species, such as switchgrass, Joe Pye weed and cane would have
been visually dominant in lower, moister savannas.
Trees of any species would be visually important to the savanna because
of their contrasting relationship to the grassy ground plane. Which canopy
species were of a greater "visual essence" might depend on the type of savanna
and the time of year. Longleaf pine would obviously visually dominate the
longleaf savannas. In situations where oaks are mixed in with pines, pines
might dominate in the winter as evergreens. On the other hand, where post
and blackjack oak occurred they may have been visually important, especially
in the winter, due to their unique branching pattern.
Tree form is particularly important in the savannas, since trees are set
off and strongly contrasted by the grassy ground plane. Generally savanna
tree form would reflect development in a full sun environment, meaning savanna
trees would have a more open, spreading form than trees of forest habitats.
Trees unable to grow above the reach of fire would have a perpetual bushy
look, while trees able to mature and grow old in spite of the disturbances
of the savanna environment may have taken on unique characteristics. For
example, on the glady, steep slopes and poor soils of the Ozark Plateau,
post oaks dominate the canopy. These stunted, ancient, trees (up to 300
years old) are characterized by twisted trunks, dead tops and branches,
exposed root collars, hollow voids, few thick limbs, leaning trunks, branch
stubs, irregular bark, and fire and lightning scars (Stahle 334). It is
unclear if post oaks dominating much of the Piedmont savanna were able to
reach such ages, but it does not seem unlikely. In some ways the low oaks
of Piedmont upland savannas may have resembled the burr oaks of the Midwest.
The trees were of very uniform size, being little taller than pear trees,
which they resemble a good deal in form; and having trunks that rarely attain
two feet in diameter. (Cooper 10-11)
That trees of upland Piedmont savanna settings did not reach great size
is suggested in many explorers' descriptions. Hawkins many times refers
to the upland trees, including oak, hickory, and shortleaf pine, as "all
of them small" (19), while Byrd also describes trees "fit for little but
fuel and fence-rails." (284) Coincidentally, The Audubon Society Field Guide
To North American Trees describes the uses for post oak and blackjack oak
as posts and cross ties (Little 367, 409). While Hawkins' oaks, hickories
and shortleaf pines did not attain great size, the long leaf and loblolly
pine stands along the lower Piedmont uplands probably did. These open pine
forests may have displayed a "sameness and uniformity of appearance" (Wells
116-117) as their many straight unbranched trunks marched unobscured into
the distance. Lowland trees were probably also quite tall and
Figure 6.12 Savanna tree forms. well developed, except where forest succession
over old Indian fields was relatively young. In an open plain of the Oconee
river valley, Bartram describes a "flourishing grove" as an "appendage of
the high forest we had passed through" (307).
It is quite possible and probable that savanna trees were generally "limbed
up" to some extent by browsers and/or fire. Deer may have contributed greatly
to creating a browse line with the help of buffalo. A discussion with Dr.
Frank Golley of the University of Georgia Institute of Ecology supports
personal observations as to the sometimes well- defined browse zone of deer.
Such a browse zone would probably not have been as pronounced as those seen
today where cattle, grazing and browsing intensively in pastures, create
a very clean line of open understory at about six feet (Westmacott 14).
This is in part because browsing pressures may not have been as high where
fences did not restrict movement of herds and because buffalo may have been,
as they are on the plains, primarily grazers. Also, deer can stand on their
hind legs to reach higher branches, thus reducing the likelihood of a very
clean line. Fire also may have somewhat randomly killed lower limbs, as
it seems to do in young modern pine stands.
Other Visual Characteristics
In general, the open landscape of the undulating Piedmont savanna offered
both wide and long prospects. In the open woods of the Cowpens Battlefield
soldiers could be seen at a distance of 500 yards (Westmacott 9) while "prairies"
of North Carolina offered virtually unobstructed views. Bartram encountered
many vistas in his fall line travels and even described a prospect reaching
"to the utmost of sight" (316). In contrast to the forest view, savanna
openness provides ability to read the often undulating topography, to view
distant features, to perceive atmospheric perspective, and to see a great
deal more of the sky and its displays. The relationship to landscape preference
that such a prospect affords is included in the discussion in Chapter III
regarding the studies by Kaplan and Kaplan and Appleton's theories.
The Play of Light
The play of light on savanna surfaces and through the savanna atmosphere
is greatly enhanced due to the openness of the environment. Two lighting
effects, one warm and one cool, are of particular importance in enhancing
the visual aspect of the savanna. The first, spoken of often by Bartram
as "illumined green fields" (307), happens when the sun is low in the morning
and evening. The resulting effect is strongly back-lit bright yellow-green
grasses contrasting with the dark shadows of tree trunks, limbs, and leaves
and the dark shapes of limbless tree trunks. Second and equally important
is the effect of light passing through moisture in the atmosphere. Viewed
over the distances found in the savannas, objects such as receding clumps
of trees appear hazier or bluer as more moisture-laden atmosphere comes
between the objects and the viewer. All things considered, the visual effects
once found in the Piedmont savanna constitute a landscape that would appeal
strongly to our human aesthetic disposition.
Figure 6.13 Dark trunks and backlit grass at Illinois Beach State Park
savanna, Illinois (photo by author).
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