Alyssa Dennis is an artist and activist who resides in Brooklyn, NY. Her work which focuses on the built environment led her to want to hone in on community engagement, food safety, nutrition, agriculture, herbal traditions and education. Although Alyssa has been studying plants and their cultural and environmental importance in a variety of ways since 2009 she began a 3 year herbalism program with Arbor Vitae School of Traditional Herbalism in Sept 2017. One of her main goals with Arbor Vitae is to further develop the efforts and goals of Common Knowledge.
" I created Common Knowledge in 2016 as a way to connect city dwellers to the abundance of wild edible medicine which grows right outside our doors. Our education tools are designed to address a social and environmental call to action and were conceived in response to my own insatiable interest in learning about the plants within my urban neighborhood. Becoming familiar with the information of the plant world can be a daunting task in the face of the thousands of species, but daily exposure to a select few via design and interactive play will increase your retention. I’ve found I enjoyed learning more when I was able to interact with information in different ways throughout my day in fun, easily accessible ways.
I chose the urban landscape as our focus because it is where I’ve spend most of my life and it is an environment with a surprising abundance of unintentional natural spaces. Instead of nurturing the wild plants that grow in our cities, these plants are eradicated or at the very least confined and controlled. We create a hierarchy of value for wild native and non-native, invasive and unwanted species. A “weed” is simply an unwanted or displaced plant, and perhaps more importantly a plant that isn’t easily commodifiable. However, being unwanted and uncommodifiable is simply a matter of judgment that doesn’t actually consider the biological efficacy of 'weeds', and certainly shouldn’t be reason enough for extermination. Yes, 'weeds' interfere with building, developing and organizing the landscape, but taking a more symbiotic view we see that they also work incredibly hard to add nutrients to the soil and clean carbon monoxide from the air. In every ecosystem around the world there are species of plants where it is their job to restore soil from all kinds of disturbances. For example these 'weeds' are the very types of seedings which start to grow after a devastating forest fire. They are an indicator, a litmus test of what the soil needs for further sustained growth. Their message should not be ignored.
Herbalists often mention that the more prolific and abundant a plant is the more we need it. These plants thrive within the urban landscape because of its consistent disturbance from construction, demolition and pollutants. They quite literally are indignant to the disturbances of city life. They are a reminder to us that life will always find a way. Like Peter Del Tredici said in his book, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, “They are our wild volunteers of remediation... Urban places are complex mixes of the human, the built, the cultivated and the wild. It is important to approach them as a complex whole whose components are seen to contribute to sustainability, health, beauty and function.“ We consider a “pristine" wild landscape to be a place were plants grow freely without human influence. Ironically, we have the same process happening in the urban terrain yet we call it unsightly, a sign of neglect, something that is derelict, undesirable and abandoned. Instead of choosing to ignore or eliminate plants we find to be a nuisance, it is better first to understand them. In addition to exploring ecological functionality, Common Knowledge also questions the low esthetic value we place on these herbs. It is my hope that through an artistic lens we can start to grasp the incredible virtues of these species.
All of the plants used in Common Knowledge educational tools and products were drawn from plants I’ve found in and around my own neighborhood. They aren’t only edible but have many medicinal uses, which I’m hoping gives our audience a personal connection to this information. However, when these plants are found next to roads they are involved in the hard work of taking on damaging pollutants from the environment and are often not safe to eat or harvest for medicine. The wild plants growing on sidewalks, by buildings and in abandoned lots invite us to think differently about the way we conduct ourselves. By recognizing how special and important these species have been for us throughout time, we can start thinking about the ways we treat them on a micro and macro level, from our everyday interactions with them to the ways in which we pollute on a small and not so small scale."