Connecting to the land

With the purchase of a piece of land ten years ago, Aga Mitka’s life changed irrevocably. Setting foot on the eight-acre site, give or take, in the hills of Inchigeelagh at the edge of a Gaeltacht, the Polish born Cork city-dwelling biologist, now 47, tells Mary O’Brien how she felt a call to the land that she couldn’t ignore. “It’s hard to describe,” she says “but on reading Manchán Magan’s books more recently, I could understand what he means when he talks about the connection to the land and how it calls to you. It was like that for me, I really felt like the land was speaking to me.”

Aga’s smallholding is wild and beautiful, rich in biodiversity and fauna, with the minimal amount tamed for habitation. High up in the hills of Inchigeelagh but nestled in a valley overshadowed with trees and rocks, it feels like the land is holding you, grounding you. “With the higher hills all around, it’s like being in a crater; you feel very protected here,” explains Aga. In 2013, she moved into her half-finished new build and before long had made friends with her neighbours. “While I arrived here on my own, knowing nobody, it very quickly became home and now I can’t imagine ever leaving,” she shares.

In 2020 Aga made another life-changing decision: She quit her job and, as you do, she started hand-building a treehouse! This coming into being of the Ark Ranch Treehouse – recently featured on the Channel 4 programme ‘Extraordinary Escapes with Sandy Toksvig’ – means that Aga’s little piece of paradise is now shared, with anyone welcome to book a short stay, settle into the cosy cabin hugged by the trees for a few days and experience life closer to nature.

“People come here for all sorts of reasons,” shares Aga. “Some are on a retreat, some come simply for solitude, others are on a romantic getaway or celebrating an occasion.” There have been proposals and even serenades at the cabin. “About a month ago, one Romeo endeavoured to serenade his girlfriend on the balcony but the donkeys kept joining in,” laughs Aga.

There is no Wi-Fi, which offers a welcome respite for most visitors. “Except when a proposal is accepted,” she shares, smiling “then access suddenly becomes very important as they want to share their good news with the outside world!”

“So many couples have said it’s the first proper conversation they’ve had for years without distraction,” she explains. “They play cards, talk and get to know each other again,” says Aga, who also shares how her friends thought she was crazy when she first came up with the idea of building a treehouse in the middle of nowhere.

Undeterred, Aga, – who had never so much as picked up a tool before moving to Inchigeelagh but for months had shadowed the builders working on her own house – got planning permission and started digging, pouring concrete and erecting telegraph poles – the strong stilts required for holding this impressive structure in place.

“I had no experience of building prior to this but I’m determined and a fast learner…it didn’t take me long to graduate from a drill to a chainsaw,” she laughs.

The project started in the midst of the pandemic so materials weren’t easy to source, but with necessity being the mother of invention, the keen DIY-er didn’t allow this to faze her and before long she had the corrugated metal roof in place, which allowed work to continue through the winter.

“I think the roof was the most difficult part of the project for me,’ she says. “It took me two hours just to build up the nerve to swing my leg over the apex.”

Once she had gotten over her initial reluctance, with some gentle encouragement from her partner, and, even after a soft if prickly fall into the gorse below, Aga, secured by safety ropes, was soon swinging up and down the ladder and scaffolding like a monkey in the trees, completing the roof in just under two weeks.

Inside however is where this maker’s creative spirit really shines. Floorboards have been cut and fitted in a herringbone pattern, stained to varying depths in a rich brown, walls are cladded in Douglas fir, its warm and inviting scent permeating the small space that feels bigger because of the tall ceiling and large windows. The counters are carved from oak, the handles and banisters from ash and the larger handles on the cupboards are pine branches. Much of the wood used to create decorative pieces in the treehouse, such as the beautiful lamp and clock crafted by Aga, were collected after being stripped from trees on the land by the resident donkeys. There is a small stove for when the weather turns cold and a small balcony to relax outside on. Aga did all the plumbing herself, going so far as to dig the trench needed to connect the cabin to the septic tank.

“That part was quite overwhelming,” she shares “as I was so close to being finished but absolutely exhausted while digging the trench.”

Aga prevailed, working through the wall of tiredness, and reaped the rewards of her efforts when one week after putting the treehouse up on Airbnb, it was completely booked out for the season. “I think people were looking for an adventure, to get away from the busyness of life,” she says. “There is something very healing and spiritual about the land here, you can feel it when you arrive.”

Walking the land with Aga, her words resonate. The only sound is the twigs crackling underfoot, occasionally interrupted by birdsong. There used to be an old famine cottage on the property but in the building of a service road over bogland close to a hundred years ago, the cottage was knocked for its stone. The old famine cottage now lies beneath the road. Ancient ditches and walls still divide fields and a pure spring well spouts from underneath the rock.

Aside from planting hundreds of native trees and plants and grazing her animals, including two wild mountain horses she broke in herself and four donkeys, Aga has left much of the land untouched.

Closer to the main house, she grows organic vegetables and fruit and has created a wildlife pond and meadow. After a storm blew her polytunnel away, she hand built a glasshouse.

This enterprising homesteader has made her well house into a cellar to store her bounty after harvesting. “My friends call it a nuclear bunker,” she laughs. ‘But mark my words, I’ll be eating one-year-old carrots that will still be perfect.”

She explains how in the old days in Poland every family would have had some kind of storage space underground, usually with just a board covering it, for keeping potatoes and other vegetables. “It’s important to me to keep that tradition alive,” she says.

Aga keeps chickens for eggs and bees for honey and makes soaps and salves from her herbs and beeswax, selling some of the products to her guests.

For anyone interested in exploring the natural beauty spots of the area, Lough Allua is less than 5km down the road and suitable for fishing, kayaking and swimming in and Gougane Barra is only a 20-minute drive away.

Always with a project on the go, Aga has nearly completed a sauna and hot tub (for her own personal use). Until that’s finished she’s making do with an old cast iron bath propped up on stones and heated by lighting a small fire underneath. “You have to be careful where you sit or you burn your bum,” she laughs.

While over the years there have been moments of despair, it has always felt right to Aga.

“There’s nothing quite like being out here soaking in the tub on a really clear night looking up at the stars and listening to the land with the mountains rising up around you,” she says.

Mary O'Brien

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