In this episode, I interview longtime friend an accomplished Appalachian Clinical Herbalist Andrew Bentley of Lee County, Kentucky.
This is part one of two, where he shares his earliest experiences learning about herbs from his Irish-American family, and talks about his childhood in Appalachia.
You’ll learn about all the components of his education which went into his eventual decision to pursue herbalism as a full-time career, including his family traditions, his studies of chemistry and molecular biology and his later forays into linguistics and anthropology, his travels throughout Central Asia and his work with indigenous healers there, and the ways he learned to assess the illnesses of his patients to help determine which herbs might best support each person’s equilibrium.
We also talk about his fascinating family history stretching back to Ireland, with ancestors who were Bards and Travellers, and who have long shared medicine, history, stories, and music with their communities.
We finish up this episode discussing how he forages and crafts his medicines, his philosophical approach to the healing arts, and how he blends science and traditional wisdom to provide holistic care for his community.
Links From Show
Andrew Bentley’s Facebook Page
Andrew Bentley’s Instagram Page
Andrew Bentley’s Website
Andrew Bentley’s YouTube Channel
Starvation on Hell Creek played by Charley Fraley of Lee County, KY
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welcome to the what dreamers do podcast. i’m your host carla govan and appalachian musician flatfoot dancer, mama creative and dreamer from kentucky. i’m on a mission to inspire others to realize their dreams and live their most creative lives. grab your mason jar full of sweet tea or something a little stronger, and pull up a chair, because it’s time to get your dream off.
that’s what dreamers do.
welcome dreamers, i am so excited to introduce you to my good buddy andrew bailey, who not only is going to inspire you with his vision and walk in his talk of living a creative life, but he’s also going to share a lot of information that is going to help us be healthier in our bodies, our minds our spirits and have a better, healthier connection with the earth and with the plants of this beautiful planet.
in this interview, you’re going to hear about his clinical practice how he became an herbalist. and you’ll come to see that he spent the time developing the appalachian lore and heritage that he was given in herbalism in a similar way that i did with music and dance. and he’s just kind of taken all of these traditions and run with them. he’s a really special person to be around. his knowledge seems almost infinite. he’s truly one of the smartest people i know. but he’s really cool too, because if you go to his house, often, he’ll feed you a meal that he’s hunted the meat, foraged all the vegetables, or the fruits in it. he’s made cocktails and cordials out of plants and berries in his yard, or in his nearby meadows or in the woods. and it’s just a really special experience, because he kind of has taken a lot of the things that he grew up with and was raised doing and learning from the elders in appalachia, and really experimented with them.
so i can’t wait for you to get to know him. this is going to be a two part series. we’ll be with you this week and next week. so let’s just dive in, and meet andrew bentley.
welcome friends. i’m so excited to be here with you today and especially to be here with my good buddy andrew bailey, who is a practicing clinical herbalist living in lexington, kentucky right now. thanks for being here. thanks for having me.
there are really so many things that we could talk about, and probably that we will talk about this week. but since our podcasts often centers around living a creative life, and also appalachia, and those are two themes that you
touch on very deeply in your practice and your background. maybe we’ll just start with talking about where you’re from and how you got where you are today. sounds good. so i am from eastern kentucky. i’m from lee county and an area called bear track which is just a very rural area in lee county. and so i grew up there in the 70s and 80s and then moved to lexington to go to college in the early 90s.
right and i know that’s that’s definitely one thing when we met
that i felt we had in common is that story of beginnings in eastern kentucky and moving to lexington to get our education.
a lot of people a lot of there’s a lot of my buddy silas house calls us appalachian expats. so lexington is full of appalachian expats.
but anyway, i think one thing that my listeners will be interested in hearing about is how you got your start in herbalism. since that’s a big part of what you do in your life now, like what early experiences and exposures
developed to cultivate that interest in you. okay, well, my family had a tradition of using herbal medicine and using plants and
in the area that i grew up in, well in my family that that tradition goes back to before we came to the united states that they were herbalists and healers in in ireland. and then in the area that i grew up in herbal medicine was still very much a common part of daily life for most people. it was just something that people would use, people would use remedies from their environment rather than things that were store bought. and so i learned a lot from just exposure being in that in that community.
so your family i know you’ve talked about your father and your grandma
sharing some of those skills with you what are some of the first plants that you remember noticing or having pointed out to you.
so there are some that were really easy to recognize that i learned really early on, like oak trees, which, you know, you can recognize them because they have acorns on them. and they have a pretty distinctive leaf shape, or at least most of them do. and dandelions, you know, some common weed type plants that are just sort of everywhere that are fairly recognizable, were some of the earliest ones that i learned. yarrow is another one yarrow looks like some other plants, but it has a real distinctive smell to it. and so that that’s one that i learned early on, and still use a lot and have, you know, lectured about to national audiences and things like that.
yeah, it’s pretty amazing how,
how intimate you can get with just a single herb, or how many different things you can do if you have an apothecary that just has like five or six herbs in it.
the versatility and breadth of them, is pretty amazing. and i know, that’s something i’ve seen, you delve into just not just using one herb for one thing, but using one or for many different purposes for many different things. and that’s, you know, here in my
clinical practice, where we’re sitting right now, i have hundreds of different herbs. but growing up, i think, you know, my dad probably used 20 different herbs. and a lot of the people that we grew up around, you just used a few different things that they used for a lot of different purposes. and so you know, if you have something like
one of our traditional appalachian herbs that a lot of people know, is goldenseal. and people use it for a lot of different things, people would use it topically to disinfect wounds, people would use it internally as a sort of laxative, or digestive, it’s very bitter. and so it kind of gets the juices moving inside your digestive tract.
so you know, there would be things like that, that would have a lot of different uses that were not even necessarily closely related uses. and that’s, that’s been typical. and i think you’ll find that all over the world with people using plants that they’ll find multiple different uses for a single remedy. because unlike,
unlike, say, over the counter drugs, which are a single substance with some other inactive ingredients, you know, there’s a single active ingredient, and most of them,
herbs have hundreds of different substances in them that are doing different things. and so you get a very different
response from the body, depending on how its administered.
that’s one thing that i really
enjoy about your approach to herbalism. and that i’ve learned from you is, i think a lot of times in modern day, thought we think of herbs and herbalism as it’s really complicated. you need tons and tons of herbs. they’re exotic, they’re imported. they’re from, you know, hot places or jungles, and they’re mysterious. but as i understand it, the way you practice herbalism really has an emphasis on the local plants and the relationship that you have with those plants. and it’s not super complicated. definitely. i mean, it can be as complicated as you want it to be. but there’s there’s definitely
a strong tradition in herbal medicine, especially in like a more domestic variety of herbal medicine, of getting what’s around you and gathering things from your environment and having a direct connection to your environment, which could be you know, the garden where you grow things, it could be the woods around your house, or, you know, the pastures near your house in some people’s cases where you just go out and there would be plants that were there. and sometimes, a lot of the time if you look at not necessarily what
the people writing, herbals and treating rich and famous people were doing, but what the common folk were doing with herbal medicine throughout history, a lot of the time it’s things like cabbage leaves and garlic, and things that were like more like a byproduct of their food production process that they had because they were, you know, gathering food raspberry leaves would be another example even though that’s usually a wild or wild ish type of plant. people who gather or allow the bushes to grow so that they could gather the food from them, but they would also gather the leaves and use those as medicine. and so there’s there’s a lot of that sort of thing and there’s always been you know, the exotic edge to it too, or there’s you know, myrrh or something like that that’s brought from far away that has
as you know, a sort of specialness to it, because it’s rare and because it’s exotic, but a lot of the time, you can do the same sorts of things with common weeds.
well, i love i love hearing about that. and i do want to, in a minute, get more into what you’re doing now in your herbal practice. but
i also want to touch on the past a little bit more, because it’s really interesting.
i remember one time when you and i did a gig together.
and there was performance at the end. and you’d been teaching the kids herbs all week, and i’d been teaching them music all week. and then at the end for the performance, you busted out some traditions from your family lineage that were would you call it a bardic tradition? yeah, i would call it that. do you want to talk about that a little bit, because it was so interesting. so the in.
in ireland from really ancient times, medicine, and music, and prophecy were all considered sort of interlocking disciplines. so you’d have people who were
well in, in ancient times, druids, and then later on bards, and some other things, sometimes they still call them druids, even up into the 1700s or so. but they were people who
knew about medicine knew about what you might call magic. and knew about
history, or stories, which were sometimes kept in the form of song and sometimes kept in the form of just prose, or sometimes prose with some dialogue, that was actually a pretty popular format, too. so the there was a lot of a lot of that kind of that was part of the family tradition. and then some of it, which i, you know, went back and learned some songs and things like that, that that had been around in former times that weren’t necessarily passed down to me through my family, but that i that i went back and learned about that we’re just sort of part of the same cultural tradition. right.
and i think that’s one thing that maybe irish traditional culture and appalachian traditional culture, i guess, all traditional cultures really have that common thread of, it’s very much something that you pass down in your family to your children. and i know that that’s a part of what you’ve done with your daughter, eva. and in fact, it’s really adorable, because i remember when she was like three or four, and you’d started teaching her these things. she went around all the time telling everybody i’m a bard from class, oh, mara.
and now she’s working with you, right? she’s with you. she’s making most of the medicine that i use in my practice these days, and she
is doing some work with patients. she was doing a little bit more of that before the pandemic started. but now she’s mostly doing the medicine making and making herbal candies, which is sort of her her own project. and oh, yeah, that’s really cool. making them palatable for people that might not like the flavors of them, right. yeah, cuz she, she, she herself doesn’t really like the way the alcohol and the tinctures tastes, for example, so. so she thought it would be nice to have gummies and things like that.
well, that’s awesome. to be passing it on like that. it means a lot. i know very well through the work that i’ve done with with my daughters, and in passing down the music that i’ve learned.
so i think another thing so we know that you have this history, you know, we know that you’ve grown up in appalachia, you have a family tradition of herbalism. obviously, it’s something that you took to and kind of studied on your own as much as you could, what other things have contributed to your eventual career in herbalism. like your your education. i know you traveled a lot. i know you studied with some indigenous healers. yeah, tell us about those things. okay. so
early on, i
didn’t necessarily know that i was going to be able to make a career out of herbal medicine. my my father and grandfather didn’t really it was just something that they did for people around them. but but not as their their main way of supporting themselves or anything.
so at one point, i studied molecular biology at western kentucky university for about a year and was involved in a research project to there. and we were we were looking at the trackpants zones that cause african sleeping sickness and trying to figure out how they went about evading the immune system, which we didn’t figure out someone else did, but someone somewhere eventually figured it out. but so i got some background in cameras.
history and molecular biology from that. and then i started applying that to learning about herbal medicine because i understood like this whole different language for how molecules are put together, and what sorts of chemicals are similar to each other and might be expected to do different similar types of things to each other. and so i started kind of looking at it from that perspective, which is not a perspective that a whole lot of people in the herbal medicine world have. and then
later on, i studied anthropology and linguistics at the university of kentucky, and went to post soviet central asia in the 1990s, and did some field work there learning about what sorts of medicines people used.
so i was learning all of this stuff. and it was, it was very interesting, but i still didn’t necessarily have the sense that i was ever going to be able to make a living as an herbalist, my plan at the time had been to do computer programming for money, and to have herbal medicine be something that it just sort of did on the side. and i did work as a computer programmer at lexmark here in lexington for a couple of years.
but i sort of hated it, it was it was kind of, you know, i was okay at it. but i didn’t feel like i was really contributing anything special to the world by doing what i was doing there. and at the same time, there had been some changes in the herbal world, some regulatory changes that made it more explicitly legal to sell herbal remedies. and there had been a surge in popularity
of herbal medicine. and so i started trying to do it as as a living and it worked out.
well, i think, from my perception, because i’ve watched kind of watched your career emerge as we’ve known each other that long.
it is very interesting. and it is it does set you apart that you have not only the knowledge of the herbs that that many herbalist have, like use this for that and use this other thing for that other thing, but you also have that scientific understanding of it too. and i know that you’ve done some some work with the university of kentucky lecturing on the herbs, drug interactions over there. so that’s something and then also the folklore side of it though the folklore and the traditions. and that’s one reason i love doing herb walks with you. because you know, one minute you’ll be talking about, you know, the chemical compounds in the plant. and then the next minute, you’ll be talking about some arcane folklore from ireland about that plant. and it’s, to me a really unique and well rounded
skill set for you to do what you do. i try i tried to be, uh, you know, i feel like, there are so many different aspects to it, and each one of them could easily be more than someone’s life’s work, you know, but, but i tried to have a little bit of a little bit of all of it, you know, or a decent amount of all of it.
just to kind of have a more full understanding of things. well, the way you practice it, to me, it makes me think of you as an artist, it seems like more of an art than just a clinical or scientific thing. it’s, it’s, it’s kind of like the total package. and i like the way that you sometimes describe yourself as the village herbalist. yeah, it’s a term that i came up with pretty early on when i was when i was when i first had come to lexington, i was working a lot with
people who were homeless, or people who were part of the rainbow gatherings which were just sort of like traveling hippie type people. and so i was working a lot with,
you know, that sort of population who were not using conventional medicine as much. and that was sort of something that i half jokingly started calling myself at the time, you know, felt like a nice anachronistic job title. and it’s kind of, you know, come to be more and more real as the years and decades have gone by and as a as my practice has become more of a well known thing here in town. well, it’s very evocative, and if you were sitting here with me in belize clinic,
it definitely has the village herbalist vibe. i mean, there’s mortars and pestles and jars full of roots and mysterious liquids and
many shelves full of herbs and mixtures of various herbs. and i think one of the things that
is really cool
is the way that you forage your own plants and make your own medicines because i’ve actually i was i was on the road somewhere and went to an herbalist. and i haven’t been to too many herbalist because i usually come to you. and when i went in his, in his office, i realized that all of his medicine, it was just he bought the herbs from other places. and so i was like, wait, he didn’t make his own herbs. but i guess that’s not necessarily typical, right? i mean, a lot of a lot of herbalists do make their own extracts, i tried to go an extra step and have just about everything i use be something that i’ve either grown myself, or gathered myself, or in some cases had people gather or grow for me if it’s something that won’t grow around here. like for instance, the seaweed that i use comes from a company called blonde amara that’s on the, on an island off the west coast of ireland. and it’s a multi generational family that harvests seaweed from the ocean, they’re, you know, we’re a long ways from the ocean, like symptoms.
but they’ve, they’re, they’re seaweed people, and they know how to how to do it properly and everything and so that i tried to get it from sources like that, rather than from, you know, big companies or from
places where i wouldn’t necessarily know where the plant had been from the time that it was a living thing until the time that it’s a finished product that i’m giving to a patient.
well, i love the fact that you that you do make your own formulations. and one other question that i have is
how you learned about diagnostics? because it’s one thing to know, you know, this herb is good for this ailment. but i know that many times when when somebody’s ill, they don’t necessarily know what it is they have. so what process did you go through to learn about, you know, actually figuring out what it is that someone has? yeah, that’s really the hard part of any kind of clinical work, i think, is, is the assessment, i don’t really like the term diagnostic, because it feels kind of superstitious to me, because it means like, certain knowledge or whatever, and i tend to think of it more as a working hypothesis. but
the process of assessment that i use is mostly based on asking questions, and getting answers from the people and then trying to figure out based on that, what structures and functions in the body need additional support. so knowing about that requires or being able to sort that out requires a lot of study of anatomy and physiology and pathology, to try and figure out, you know, how to differentiate one condition from another. if somebody’s you know, having pain in their back, how do you figure out if it’s muscular, if it’s skeletal, if it’s the kidneys, you know, there are lots of different questions that you can ask to sort of sort these things out. and, you know, learning to do that is really a big part of learning to do clinical work, whether you’re an herbalist or, you know, whatever you are. and so that’s a long and difficult study, for sure. and then, you know, i’ve incorporated some things into that process, like from i use microscopy, for example, to look at cells, and that’s something that i learned from, from doing molecular biology. and so, you know, they’re they’re parts like that, that i’ve added in, but that’s, that’s, i think that’s an area where a lot of
where a lot of
practitioners sort of fall short, where people are either just ordering tests, and then saying, there’s nothing wrong with you, if nothing comes back on the tests, or else doing some sort of hocus pocus, like,
you know, looking at the color of somebody’s irises or something or you know, things that basically amount to divination to try and figure out what’s wrong with somebody. and those things, you know, i don’t, i don’t feel like they’re to be relied upon, necessarily, certainly, i can’t do them in a way that you relied upon. maybe someone can, you know, but that’s,
that is a long, hard process of learning how to do that. but it’s mostly about sorting out what structures and functions are involved in a particular set of symptoms or clinical presentations.
well, i know a lot of people or at least there’s a popular conception, i feel like that i encounter when it comes to quote unquote, alternative medicine, which is that you have scientific
western medicine that is proven and then you have this hippie dippie alternative medicine that’s just kind of like witchcraft or superstition or quackery and
and from hearing you talk and just from knowing what you do, it seems to me that you bring both this body of traditional knowledge as well as what you’ve learned from science into the mix. so what would you say about that? i agree, i tried to, with herbal medicine, i don’t really think of herbal medicine as being alternative medicine, it’s actually the mainstream of human health care on earth. and what we think of as conventional medicine in our culture is, you know, something that’s more available to people with more resources or in places that have more resources. and
it’s one difference is that herbal medicine is mostly not really proprietary. i mean, some formulas are, but the herbs themselves aren’t really. and so there’s not necessarily the financial incentive to
market them in the same way that there is with drugs. but
with a lot of herbs, there actually are lots of studies, for example, garlic, has dozens of clinical trials that have been conducted on it and multiple systematic reviews of those clinical trials, it actually has quite a bit more science than your average prescription drug, backing up what it does, and how it does it and the extent to which it can be relied on for different actions. that’s true of several herbs.
you know, maybe dozens, or maybe even hundreds of them there that there are a lot of clinical trials, and then there are a lot more herbs that there aren’t, and that has a lot to do with business. and that has a lot to do with whether or not that particular herb is popular in.
in a society or a culture or a country that has a lot of power and money to do those kinds of studies. whereas if something were mostly used among a small population of, you know, people who did not have those kinds of resources, didn’t have institutes that could conduct multicenter clinical trials, then you know, you will have, you won’t have that kind of quantum quantitative data, but what you will often have, is a very long clinical history of use. and so for example, with some herbs, we have 1000s of years of written history of use, because when people invented writing, some of the first stuff that they wrote about was medicine, herbal medicine with plants that they were using. so you have things going back to ancient egypt, you have things going back to ancient china,
and stuff like that. and in other places, you don’t have as long of a written history, but you do have an oral history. and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the plants from that. and often, history of us tells us a different sort of data that we might miss in clinical trials, which are asking more specific focused questions. so that’s maybe a long and rambling response. but i think on the whole, that, you know, it’s important to remember that there is a lot of data backing the use of herbal medicine, sometimes it’s not the same kind of data that would be
used to, to bring drugs to market.
but there does tend to be a lot of information about it. and it’s not, this isn’t a new thing. it’s something that people have been doing the whole time there have been people, and it’s something that that there is actually a lot of available data on for people who care to look for it.
exactly. well, i think that
it would be
counter to the tenets of science itself to dismiss as you’re talking about the the extensive history of usage among human populations of certain herbs. so i, you know, obviously, i think there’s there’s ample scientific evidence in support of it. i guess i was just speaking to that popular notion that kind of tends to dismiss anything that doesn’t have a white coat that you can’t pay for with your insurance as quackery. sure, yeah. yeah, there’s some of that for sure. and, you know, some people feel, you know, more comfortable with things that are presented with an area of of authority and, you know, sort of a, an official blessing, i guess. but,
you know, like, like i said, a lot of people use herbal medicine and have for a really long time. so, i think that it’s, you know, got its own sort of
its own sort of authority to it.
i hope you’re enjoying this interview with my buddy andrew bailey.
that was kind of long. so we’re gonna continue it next week. and we’re going to go into what it’s like to visit mentally via a telehealth or in person visit at his clinic. and then we’re also going to talk about a lot of the amazing projects he has coming up, including his herbal school, as well as some of his publications and books that he has out already and that he’s working on. but meanwhile, if you want to go check him out if you want to gain some of his wisdom, he has a lot of stuff on the internet. you can find him on facebook, which is at kentucky herbalist. you can find him on instagram, at clinical herbalist, or you can visit his website at www dot kentucky herbalist.com. if you enjoyed listening to this episode, it would mean so much to me. if you would share it with a friend or to send an email, tell them by word of mouth or leave a review if you’d like anything that helps get the word out. this is all grassroots. it’s a labor of love for me, spreading messages of hope and connection, building a better world. so if you would be so kind as to help me build that world by sharing this podcast with your friends. i would greatly appreciate it. we’ll see you next week and meanwhile, keep dreaming.
thank you so much for joining me this week. if you want to make sure you never miss an episode. please hit subscribe wherever you’re listening now. or visit my website to get on my email list at www dot karla grover.com when you sign up, you’ll instantly receive my milton mama digital care package, a bundle of music and videos to help you wring every drop of the heart of life. you’ll even find a dance lesson as well as my granny’s cornbread recipe with new goodies being added all the time. i’ll see you next thursday on the wet dreamers do podcast
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