CHEW THE LEAVES, GET IN THE TANK
Inside Baltimore’s T Hill, new kinds of experiments with Salvia divinorum are going on.
Text and photography by Rjyan Kidwell
SO I went to the west side to meet the wild shepherdess, the strong female power. I was able to meet her in the house called T Hill, formerly known as Tarantula Hill, now officially going full-time by the nickname locals have been using for years. It’s a bit of a legendary place, and not just around Baltimore. In Providence, Chicago, Denver, and beyond there’s reverent talk of this place. It started as a run-down three-story warehouse in a far-beyond-food-desert part of Baltimore, and in 2001 purchased and then rebuilt (twice) by Twig Harper & Carly Ptak, a couple who comprised Nautical Almanac, one of the most influential noise bands during that scene’s nascent period, but who, in recent years, have attracted an interesting community of more spiritually-inclined experimentalists around their home. Besides the occasional carefully-curated concert, its Esoteric Library [see Endnote 1] (which anyone was free to borrow books from) and the handmade sauna on the roof, T Hill is also known for being nearly destroyed in a 2006 fire and, utterly undeterred, rising again within months.
A few years ago, at a show in a different warehouse, I saw Twig [pictured above] in the kitchen with a jar of some kind of dark powder. It turned out to be something called yopo and he was inviting people to try it. Two at a time excited volunteers would sit down beside each other on a couch and inhale the powder. Then, for about five minutes or so, they would be enter some kind of pre-verbal (post-verbal?) state, utterly unresponsive to any attempt by others to communicate with them, interacting with something else none of us could see, but without leaving their seat. Moreover, these reactions seemed unique to each volunteer. I saw two of my friends sit down together—one of them, who I often refer to behind his back as Lord Byron, writhed and contorted as if he were riding an rusty rollercoaster after downing a liter of worms. The other guy barely moved at all, but giggled and smirked adorably, watching something that seemed to be hovering at eye level a few feet in front of him. I’d never seen either of them behave in a way anything like those naked exaggerations of their core personalities. I was impressed. Twig observed everything that happened in an amused but careful way and listened as everybody explained their perspective of the experience afterwards. His genuine curiosity about each person’s trip was clear. Personally, I was way too scared of what strange secret I might myself betray in that strange five minutes, so I didn’t step up to the couch. I’ve always regretted that decision.
When word on the street went out that Twig was doing something similar at T Hill with Salvia divinorum—as of right now, a totally legal, unregulated Mexican mint—I contrived a way to check it out, under the pretense of writing an article for Arthur. As you can probably guess, the plan worked like a charm.
SALVIA first hit my radar six or seven years ago. I started hearing harrowing tales of these vivid, often terrifying trips that only lasted a few minutes but seemed to contain an unbelievable and overwhelming intensity and duration. You smoked some kind of treated leaf from the southern hemisphere, everything melted, elves terrorized you, and you maybe never wanted to do it again. Most of the people with these stories had done mushrooms and/or acid before, too, so it wasn’t tripping they were talking about—it was THIS trip.
I filed that info away and didn’t really think too much about it, until a couple years ago when The Salvia Menace emerged as a briefly trendy fright-piece on the cable news networks. Kids were taking YouTubes of their friends smoking salvia for the first time— these kids were mostly high school or college bros and their ensuing antics were more physical and chaotic than the yopo trips, but all the more entertaining for it, in a YouTube-y kind of way. The likely impetus for the mainstream media’s sudden interest in salvia was a particular cell-phone-to-YouTube salvia video featuring Miley Cyrus which had garnered a noteworthy amount of pageviews for all the popular gossip websites and introduced a great number of non-psychonauts to the plant for the first time.
Coincidentally, in December of 2010, Twig and Carly finished participating in the first scientific study of salvia’s effects on humans, and was interviewed for an article on it by the Baltimore Sun.  That was the exact day that the Miley Cyrus video went viral, and it actually ended up being incorporated into the headline and lead of the article. It would be an understatement to say that Twig is quite interested in—or even quite sensitive to—synchronicity.
“Whenever you undertake a process of internal examination, everything in your life becomes a reflection of that. Little things pop out all along the path,” he says. The third time I went over to chew salvia I heard at length about the most recent incidents of synchronicity involving Twig and Mickey Mouse—one of Twig’s more surprising interests is tracking the appearances of Mickey Mouse throughout pre-Disney history, something he has recently devoted a tumblr blog to. And as above, so below: Mickey seems to intrude at curious times within Twig’s personal life as well. Twig treats these comical intrusions with the exact same reverence and respect that he imparts upon much more grave moments of synchronicity. For instance, the fire.
“From the moment it happened, it was like: we can’t doubt this. We can’t question that this was our fate. The fire wasn’t bad enough where we had to walk away— the frame was still here. It was a shitload of work but if it was any worse we could just say, ‘Fuck it, let’s go somewhere else.’ But it was like, what do you want to do? What is the choice?” Twig and Carly married in 2008 but have been collaborating since 1993. I wouldn’t bring this up, but in light of that amazing fact, I feel like it’s maybe less weird to mention that around this time there were rumors around town that their relationship was going through some kind of transition or transformation, maybe even a drastic one. Maybe even the most drastic one. So I suspect the choice Twig is speaking of concerned something larger than the just fate of the physical building.
“Right at that time was sort of the peak of the noise-whatever scene, and what we had to do during it was—instead of having a cool tour—we had to gut a building.” In fact, Twig was hanging out backstage with some old friends before the doors opened for the very first No Fun Fest in New York City when his brother called and told him that their building was burning. To many, that fest marks the transition of American Noise Music from something marginal and elusive to a bona fide scene with a more or less cohesive aesthetic and an audience beyond obsessive art freaks and other noise musicians.
Despite the relatively high status of Nautical Almanac, Twig and Carly’s band, enjoyed within the noise scene, they weren’t fully satisfied with the atmosphere of that community. In fact, they created a webpage for an invented group called Mothers Against Noise where they published PMRC-esque invectives against individual noise groups, displaying a curiously detailed knowledge of those bands’ output and style for a group straight-facedly proclaiming to be “concerned parents,” and successfully trolled quite a few self-googling and link-sharing noiseniks in the process. “I was trying to hire actors to come protest the festival,” Twig says, motivated by “seeing all these aspects of that scene that were… bullshit. This sort of, you know, super-masculine leather daddy shit. You just gotta get rid of that. These weird threads of male dominant dumbasses.” He draws a direct line between this attempt to “short-circuit” the scene and the fire, seeing an entwined culmination of an energy he was both contributing to and drawing from.
And as below, so above: “In some weird way, that’s when Baltimore started to get all this crazy influx of new blood. That was just a real transition point for all this culture.” Twig expresses something like gratitude at certain moments as he talks about the fire and its effect on the couple’s direction.
“Leading up to that event, both of us were really disillusioned with the ability of people going to music concerts who really wanted to change things. Most people at music concerts wanna just have sex or get fucked up on alcohol or drugs—it’s a dead end. It’s this same cycle. And we’re both very idealistic people and both very interested in consciousness. And a lot of times we were using music as an excuse to do group experiments—I think that was our main M.O. And in that process we realized there were other modes—Carly was like, ‘I should get into hypnosis, become a hypnotherapist. I can work with people one on one, and just get to what I want to do, and deal with people who want to change things.’ And I started getting back into psychedelics.” The second incarnation of T Hill would reach far beyond the music scene, and continues to this day to expand the scope of activities occurring in and around the house. 
WHICH brings us to the last month and my weekly trips to chew salvia with Twig. He’s beginning a long-term expansion of his project to research the way different people experience the drug and what ways it might be used to effect positive change. He’s beginning with a series of basic questions: “What do we do with it? How do we apply its power to our lives? The bigger idea, at least for me,” he says, “is how do we apply that to a culture? How can we use this to transform culture and society?”
We would go to a silent, softly lit room and sit in comfortable chairs. He gave me a small blanket I could use if I wanted to, and some eyeshades. Twig measured out two portions of the dried leaves, which are imported in bulk from Mexico — Twig’s grown some on his own but they’re pretty sensitive to their environment so currently turning out the quantities needed for rigorous study hasn’t been an option. We start by swigging a mouthwash made of water, grain alcohol and various herbs that Twig brews himself. It tastes kind of like birch beer but more burn-y, and it opens up the saliva glands to make it easier for the drug to be absorbed. Then he handed me three ounces of the dried leaves, which is a pretty big mouthful. The first session, I would take a pinch, put it in my mouth and chew until it was mushy, put the mush under my tongue, then pop in some more leaves. He told me not to swallow my spit until I started feeling something but I found it difficult not to swallow a bit now and then while I moved the chewed-up leaves around in my mouth. The next sessions, though, we pre-soaked the leaves in hot water before I put them in my mouth, which made all this quite a bit easier.
Since I’d never smoked salvia, I had no idea really what to expect. I was expecting a mild trip, maybe like those beginning moments with mushrooms where you’re saying, “Hmm, am I tripping yet? I think I might be,”—that funny area before you really take off. Twig explained that the Mexican culture which used chewing the leaf as a holy sacrament identified the plant as a feminine spirit—gentle, but elusive, and one that would avoid anyone who was coming to it aggressively. He likened it to two sides of the tripartite Indian goddess Mahadevi.
“Smoking it is like Kali, where it just comes in and shreds you, reality gets destroyed, a lot of people go through death—the whole universe is a cosmic joke and you’re the butt of it kind of deal. Just bizarre, bizarre entity contact. But when you chew it, it’s the other side of her, Lakshmi: this loving, embracing presence. There’s a state one can get to with chewed salvia where it’s like she embraces you. There’s this return to a state that’s so familiar—somewhere between dreaming and childhood consciousness. Maybe it’s both—it’s hard to say. You can’t completely bring that bridge back out.
“It’s one of the most powerful experiences you can have with your consciousness,” he continues. “And then chewing it allows you to come back and go at a slower, conscious, more workable rate, to see what the mechanics are. It gives a longer experience, so as you go deeper, it’s still elusive, but you can have more time to understand how you got from Point A to Point B. You have some good time to travel or shift your consciousness. And it’s so gentle, it’s one of the most gentle consciousness-transformers. It’s most like lucid dreaming or meditation—you’re only going to go as far as you’re willing to go with it. So it has this real learning capability to it.”
I leaned back in the chair, chomping like a cow on a mouthful of grass, trying to open myself up. Twig told me to slip on the eyeshades once I felt something begin to happen. I wasn’t really sure when that was, so I just pulled them on after a while. I felt relaxed, for sure—more relaxed than I otherwise think I would have been just sitting quietly in a chair for an hour I thought I sensed some intermittent vibration in my arms and shoulders but I couldn’t be sure. Twig didn’t seem surprised by any of this. He told me that his own experiences had deepened over time, and he had found that reflecting immediately on the journey helped him create “breadcrumb trails” in subsequent trips. 
“These plants have things to teach us. Any intentional exploration with a plant teacher is going to take our consciousness, put us through these states, and when we come back—if it’s a good enough teacher, the right teacher for you—you learn about these routes in. The graduation would be to use less and less of that thing—probably ideally where you can just carry it in your mind, or hold it in your hand, and not actually ingest it, because you’ve learned all the lessons it has inside of it. That’s what I find really interesting about salvia, because the mechanics of it seem to be completely that way. In my experience, and some peoples’ experience, eventually you can take less and less and still go all the way into it.
“Which is great,” he continues, “because it throws a monkey wrench into the materialist/rationalist viewpoint of what a drug can do. Where you take X amount and get X amount of phenomenon.”
The second session was different. Prior to going back, I started to suspect that the open-ness I was presenting to her was possibly a little aggressive—I’m here, I’m ready: come on out and do something to me! I accepted with the possibility that nothing would happen this time either, that maybe this just wasn’t the teacher for me, and that it didn’t actually have to be. I dispensed with trying to envision the shape or content of this article before I’d sat with Twig at least three times. I thought about these things while I chewed the wet leaves—five ounces this time. Instead of being eager, I was more confused and even hesitant to decide anything—maybe it had worked the first time, and I had just been expecting too much? Without really realizing that I was doing it, I focused my perception completely inward, occupied with a muddling introspection instead of waiting for something to happen, and I found her. Or she found me.
It was definitely not something I would describe as intense. In fact, it took me quite a few minutes to recognize that the images coming to me were certainly mine, but that their order and duration were not entirely being consciously directed by me. I did not experience what I would call hallucinations, visual or auditory, but in the darkness and silence I felt a subtle pull directing and focusing my attention into thoughts that in other circumstances I would much more hastily take for the products of the haphazard inner monologue that results from getting distracted during an unimportant interval. I was collaborating with something—maybe a part of myself that I usually dismiss?
It was obvious to me that I could stand up and leave this subtle state at any moment—I wasn’t at all tempted to do so but there was plainly no obstruction to making that choice. The moment when I realized that I was definitely high was shortly followed by the moment where speaking of the plant as An Entity or as a spirit/goddess stopped seeming silly to me, and actually seemed like quite a useful symbol for reaching this different kind of receptivity. Still puzzling over what the best way to find her would be, I had a vivid image rise above all others in my mind. I imagined myself holding a beautiful blank sheet of paper, a heavy stock, where you can see the different sized fibers. It was a familiar situation: this paper should be used for something special… what would be special enough? You know that feeling, right? Like when you get a new notebook and you take a moment to think about how what you put on the first page might affect the way you write throughout. It occurred to me: I like this paper, I am glad to have something that will make what I write on it feel important. But once I write on it, I won’t have that paper anymore. I’ll have a piece of paper I wrote on—something I have plenty of, probably too many. There was none of that little bubble of stress that usually accompanies that moment, though. I could write on it later! Or I could just write on something else and keep this paper and enjoy the funny feeling of anticipation and excitement that it gives whenever I want. I’m sure I outwardly smiled at that point. I stayed quiet and eyeshaded for an hour, unaware of how much time was really passing.
The third session, I chewed ten ounces of salvia and there was no hesitation. I didn’t wait or expect anything to come from outside and act upon me. Once I’d masticated the leaves to a pureé, I spit the mush out, shut my eyes, and barged into my own imagination the way an urbex fanatic might pull you into an abandoned building she had explored alone the day before, whose forgotten fragments of beauty she couldn’t wait to share with someone else. This was less a trip in the sense of an acid experience, more akin to the act of driving an hour or so out of town and hiking a trail or visiting a botanical garden or sitting by some water. “Psychedelics is a loaded word,” Twig told me. “I wish we could throw it in the gutter. You say it and peoples’ minds conjure up all these specific things from our history. And that’s holding it back. Salvia can possibly be presented as something new—a dreaming herb, or a meditation aid. It needs some sort of presentation that is not hallucinogenic, that is not psychedelic.” A meditation aid perfectly described how chewing salvia struck me. I’m not a meditator—I tried to sit at a zazen dojo once, or whatever the proper name for that kind of place is, and it was pure torture. If I ever expect to be sitting for any length of time there’s no question I’m bringing headphones. Now, however, it doesn’t seem completely out of the question that were I to continue practicing regularly with the salvia, that might not always be the case.
It just so happened that in the week between my third and fourth session, a big project that had been in the works for months was completed: T Hill acquired and installed an isolation tank. $4,941 was raised using Indiegogo, and donors were offered perks like tank time and copies of the limited-edition releases on their long-running in-house label Heresee . This amount covered the cost of the used tank and $700 dollars worth of epsom salts. Twig estimates the labor cost about the same amount, which meant running through all of their savings and maxing out some credit cards.
Now there’s a room on the first floor dedicated to the tank, which resembles a sleek plastic cryogenic chamber from a sci-fi film, and built a beautifully tiled shower resembling a chapel in the corner of the room. There’s soft lighting that can alternate between a variety of colors and a handcrafted wooden table where the controls and pumps are excellently hidden beneath a fabric cover. It’s quite unlike anything I think you might associate with the duct-tape and decay-obsessed world of noise music. But the spirit of experimentation, boundary-crossing, and finding new uses for the things around us mark part of the path from that scene to this room. “When they first made them,” Twig tells me with a mischievous grin, “the Church would not look inside a telescope or a microscope. And we’ve been that way with the mind and the soul.”
On my fourth trip, the plumbing was all connected, the meter that measures the water’s salinity had arrived, and an immense pyramid of epsom salts was stacked outside of the tank room. Twig had me go into the tank for a while prior to chewing, so I could acclimate myself to this new environment. From the outside the tank is shaped basically like a swollen coffin, but inside you can’t see the ceiling above you or the walls beside you, and while the water isn’t deep and the salt pushes you right to the top, I had no sensation of claustrophobia. The water is about body temperature and very relaxing. I was immediately aware that my spine was curling into the bad posture I usually sit with, so I put my hands behind my head the way you always see people lying in hammocks, which was very comfortable. It was nice.
After a half hour passed, he knocked on the door and I emerged, rinsed off, and chewed eight ounces of leaves. Then I went back in. The synergy between the plant experience and isolation tank was powerful. They fit together like shoes and socks. At one point (I’m not sure how far into the soak I was) I felt my eye burning a bit and worried that the salt solution had gotten on or under my contact, so I popped out and rubbed my eye with a towel. Immediately afterwards, I could feel that I was not all that calm or focused—and seemingly not for any reason other than that I was thinking about the article, and about what I had to do later that night, and about the encroaching necessity of needing to get more serious about locating more dollars for the rapidly approaching rent day.
THEN a curious yellow figure appeared in my mind: a long, slender, tube-like creature with a face in the middle of his torso. It drew closer to me and transformed into a clothespin person—a simple wooden representation of a human that ancient children used to play with, except it was life-sized. At that moment I thought: Yep, that’s me. Right now I’m a wooden version of myself. The real me is somewhere in the future—this is how I live, I project the real me into the future and then a stiffer facsimile scrambles through the bothersome process of navigating my banal survival responsibilities and the boring logistics required to get to my goal. And then, once I get there, the real me moves forward, like a leg, and the wooden me is dragged slowly behind, like a prosthetic other leg.
As I articulated this to myself it struck me that the metaphor didn’t really make sense. The peg leg pun thing going on was kind of clever but it didn’t feel complete. Am I the real me for a moment when the wooden guy reaches a goal? Is the flesh-and-blood me not the real me, but an illusion? If that’s true, why this vivid image of the other guy as such a primitive representation, made of wood? This image, it had come from within me, but in the tank with her without even thinking about it I had a complete unquestioning trust that the image itself was consistent and that if I focused I could find a different perspective that would grant me deeper insight into its meaning. I reversed the polarity: there’s no legs. There’s the life-sized wooden peg which I first identified with and there’s the flesh-and-blood me that is doing the identifying. The wooden Rjyan is the one that goes into the future. I saw myself heaving the six-foot simulacrum far into the distance, then beginning the slow walk towards it.
IT’S maybe not the most profound realization but working through it calmed me, gave me a great sense of agency, and cemented my faith in the beauty and necessity of T Hill’s mission.
“With ayahausca and with salvia, once you get into the zone and you start communicating with whatever it is, that space that’s out there—it wants you to go out there. And spread it. It grabs ahold of you, like ‘You need to go do this.’ Over the last year,every time I would do it, it would be showing me—salvia would be showing me rooms in this building. It would show me where to build, it was showing me what to do, and telling me things like, ‘Maybe you should start a salvia church. Maybe you should start a salvia clinic.’ It’s very helpful in that way. And what do you do when you’re given visions like that? You have to do it, you can’t deny it.”
In the near future there are plans for a larger quiet room for people to visit after using the tank, or when they want to chew salvia without going into the water. A separate room will be built to be rented by those skilled in acupuncture or massage. Carly, who studied under the scientist/artist Duncan Laurie, wants to make a space for people to come and use radionics machines . There’s already a salon planned, with about 30 people with different approaches to studying psychedelics invited to come discuss their work, and lectures open to the public on a variety of topics will begin shortly thereafter. Of course, the speed with which these things happen will depend on finding a balance between T-Hill’s missions to perform community service, to do independent research, and the need to fund and maintain all these aspects.
Is there a possible future where this model grows and grows — where salvia clinics are abundant, where great numbers of people take the time to step outside the rushing current of trying to survive in order to focus inward with her help? I certainly hope so, although I imagine it would take quite a long time for anyone other than lifer freaks to take such a project upon themselves. Pondering it makes me want to try and conjure a morbid vision of a future where there’s even multiple chains of omnipresent Starbucks-y salvia centers where people sit in the darkness for an hour and come out convinced they’ve just gained an edge over some competitors, or towards securing some other materialistic short-term goal. They’d have to give you something other than salvia at a place like that, I think. The shepherdess is definitely a subtle instructor and her way is counter to our cultural norms in so many respects. She’s real, though— if not as the supernatural anthropomorphic entity my language might immediately suggest, at the very least as a unique phenomenon that penetrated my impatience and elicited more respect and appreciation the more I scrutinized her work.
At our last session, after Twig casually took down some notes on my post-tank impressions, he pointed out one more curious synchronicity. The layout of the first floor changed quite a bit after the fire, and as the tank room was being completed, Twig and Carly realized that they were unconsciously rebuilding the doctor’s office that had occupied the structure before it came into their possession. The tank room was the size and shape of an examination room, and the new hallway leading to it was going right over top of an identical hallway the doctor’s patients once crossed through. The library is being moved to site of the old waiting room immediately inside the front door. Twig is amused but not surprised by that revelation. Quite matter-of-factly he observes, “We’ve gone 12 years, a full cycle, to get back to before we started.”
I would suggest saving these for after you’ve read the whole article. —RK
2: Carly has the interesting distinction of being the first human whose blood was analyzed during a salvia smoking session. Apparently, the blood drawn from four or five previous study participants didn’t spin right and couldn’t be conclusively analyzed. Twig declined to have his blood drawn at all, but Carly “set her intention,” as she describes it, and her blood worked on the first try. “I wasn’t going to do it if it wasn’t going to work,” she said.
3: You may have noticed that Carly herself is a strong but elusive female presence in this article. This is primarily because the salvia study and isolation tank have been Twig’s pet projects. Carly’s current endeavor is preparing for the launch of a website called loveartloves.org, a proclamation of a new genre/medium/conspiracy/etc she has created. I recommend checking it out.
4: He had much of his post-trip journals online for a while, although they are currently unavailable while a new T Hill website is finished.
5: The label’s web page is at heresee.com/heresee.htm
6: Radionics, sometimes called a forbidden science by its adherents, is a method of using special machines to, in Carly’s words, “amplify your intentions.” She showed me one machine she has, a sleek, black, knob-studded box resembling a cross between a modular synthesizer and a control panel from a stealth bomber. It was given to her by her mentor Duncan Laurie. She told me, “When he gave it to me, he said ‘Treat it like a loaded gun.’ And I have.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rjyan Kidwell is an alien prince, physician, and telepath. He came to Earth from Takis in 1946, trying to stop the test release of an experimental virus created by his own family. Failing to prevent it, he vowed to spend the rest of his life on Earth treating victims of the virus. Because Takisians age very slowly, Rjyan’s appearance belies his supercentenarian status.