There is an almost seamless interaction between land and water here, where fields are punctuated by marshland, and rolling terrain drains to meandering, tidal creeks and rivers.
It is also a land of forests and woods. In general, the region has five principle natural systems in interaction: forest, fields, farms, water (rivers and creeks) and marshes.
When John Smith explored the Northern Neck in 1607, he was impressed with the seemingly unending forest of massive trees. It was completely free of understory, kept clear, he would discover, by American Indians, who hunted deer by creating rings of fire in the woods. He noted the huge white oaks, an abundance mulberry trees that provided food for Indian, and the “goodliest woods as beech, cedar, cypress, walnuts and sassafras. In the bottomland there were live oak, holly, cedar and sweet gum. The pine and hardwood forests of today are similar to what one would have found here in the 1600s, though today they are less dense.
Fields and meadows
Many open meadows in Virginia’s Lower Potomac are simply “old fields,” or farmland at rest. The woody shrubs and grasses provide food and cover for a variety of ground nesting birds and mammals. Although most old fields are fields in transition, awaiting some other use by the landowner, they are an important part of the Lower Potomac’s natural cycle. Left alone, old fields would eventually revert to forest. This is an illustration of how the cycles of farming supports natural processes.
Pastures and farm fields are not entirely natural because they are managed for production. But they and the hedgerows that divide them are a significant feature on the landscape, particularly on the Northern Neck. They support various species of wildlife, and when managed under best practices, play an important role in filtering rainwater before it enters creeks and streams.
Rivers and creeks
The Lower Potomac landscape is sometimes described as “more water than ground.” Certainly, earlier settlers to the Northern Neck would concur. Their transportation network relied much more heavily on waterways than roads. The wide, brackish streams are among the most distinctive features of the Lower Potomac landscape, providing breeding areas and habitat for fish and wildlife species, such as oysters and blue crabs.
Marshes are low-lying water-logged edges where land and marine life meet. They are buffer zones, a final place for water draining from the land to go through the wash cycle before mixing with the tides. More often than not, this is what is meant by “waterfront land.”