Gunther Hamker has lived in a cabin in southern Lower Saxony for over 50 years. A conversation about alcohol addiction, snoring dogs and loneliness.
Gunther Hamker in front of his cabin: He feels "fantastically comfortable" there Photo: Juliane Preib
site: Mr. Hamker, what does distance mean to you?
Gunther Hamker: For me, distance is a gift. Life in the forest and distance have become a need for me. Here I have the opportunity to gain distance again and again and to think about things. I had to learn that first, too. But distance is much easier than some people think.
Many people confuse distance with loneliness. But that’s something completely different. When I was still studying in Gottingen, living door to door with other people and hanging out in pubs all night, I was much lonelier. If I feel lonely here, I am not okay with myself. Then I have to change something. And if I sit down somewhere on the mountain or go to friends. I am a sociable person.
There are numerous articles about you. Even documentaries. In them, you are repeatedly referred to as a hermit, a recluse or a dropout. Is that what you are?
No, not at all. But the hermit thing is a good sell. The German Press Agency came by here for a short time. A few photos were taken, which then went through the Republic in all formats. When I read the articles, I felt like otzi II. But that’s not me.
What are you?
A hermit, no. Solitary, yes. Some people think I’m crazy, I can tell by the looks or sometimes hear from behind the closed gate, "That’s where the crazy guy lives, he’s out of his mind." I try to deal with it, but if I’m honest, it hits me deeply.
You’ve lived up here in the woods for over 50 years. How did it come about?
I was here a lot as a child with my grandfather. He died when I was 13 and left me the cabin and 80 hectares of forest. The forest not only shaped me, it saved my life.
You have to explain.
When I was 22 years old, in the fall of 1962, I moved up here. Against my father’s wishes. He had something else in mind for me. I was supposed to become a bank clerk. But I quit my apprenticeship as soon as I was of age. I then started studying medicine in Munster, and my father was furious.
79, grew up with five siblings in a middle-class family in Blomberg in eastern Westphalia. He broke off a bank apprenticeship and studied medicine in Munster, Innsbruck and Gottingen. After his first exam, Hamker quit his studies without graduating and moved to a hunting lodge near the Bodenstein cliffs near Bokenem in southern Lower Saxony.
He inherited the cabin and 80 hectares of forest from his grandfather. Revenues from forestry collapsed in the late 1990s, and Hamker was threatened with foreclosure of his property. After a year-long legal battle, he sold the forest, but won the right to live in the cabin for life.
It’s quite a long way from Munster to the Bodenstein cliffs southwest of Salzgitter.
I financed my life with the forest. Not only did I constantly travel back and forth, but I was also always torn. I learned at a young age that alcohol is a problem solver. And I had a lot of problems back then. So it was just right for me that there was a lot of drinking in the forest. When selling wood or hunting, people always drank. After my physics exam, which I managed by the skin of my teeth, I moved to Gottingen. But it did not get better. I increasingly drank against my fears. I was afraid that I wouldn’t pass my exams. On top of that, I had a relationship that fell apart. At some point I had shaky hands. But I didn’t want to admit to myself that I had a problem. Along with alcohol came medication. I managed to pass half of my exams, and that was the final stage.
Final state of what?
I wanted to make an exit. I drove up here and swallowed plenty of sleeping pills. But I was lucky, someone found me and got me out. An acquaintance then urged me to go back to the clinic, which I did. I understood: If you go on like this, you’ll die.
How did you make the jump?
I gave up my room in Gottingen and moved to the forest. This is where I really started to live. The occupation and work here in the forest saved me. I still had two relapses. January 11, 1979 was the deadline, since then I have never drank again. The date is very important for me, it is also the license plate of my car. But I probably couldn’t have done it completely without help.
What help did you accept?
I was lucky to have the right people around me. I met most of my good friends here in the woods, by chance. I also attended Alcoholics Anonymous groups. Later, I led a group for over ten years and also founded one. And the dogs have always helped me.
When I stopped drinking, I thought, now you can get a dog. I’ve had a total of four large Munsterlander, the last one is 17 years old. Without a dog, I might go crazy up here. I definitely have my depressions or sleep fitfully, and it calms me to have a snoring dog next to me. Dogs don’t allow for depression. They bring variety, structure and, of course, friendship.
Hamker pats Remo. The six-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog rests his head, the size of a medicine ball, on Hamker’s lap.
By now, I’m too old to have my own dog. Remo belongs to a good friend nearby. I take care of him. I could no longer finance a dog, the costs of keeping one are simply too high.
You have made a comfortable and self-sufficient home out of the former hunting lodge. How long did that last?
Actually, it never stops. There’s always something to do. When I moved here, there weren’t even any paths, I had to build them. The hunting lodge only had three tiny rooms with double bunk beds. First I tore out a few walls, then I broke in skylights, it was pitch black here. With electricity and running water, it took a while. I’ve been sitting here with kerosene lamps for almost 20 years, getting water on foot from the spring. Now I have a water pipe and wind turbine and solar power supply me with electricity, I also have a washing machine, a telephone and by now a smartphone, sometimes even reception.
Did you build and set all this up by yourself?
For the most part, yes. But I also always had help from friends. Mostly I collected things that others no longer wanted, like the stoves, for example. It took me 1.5 years to build the tiled stove. I bought a book and studied it properly. Several times I have built the whole thing off and on, until he finally stood. I was not always a patient person, I learned that only here in the forest.
Self-sufficient living, away from big cities and the hustle and bustle, seems to be an alternative for many people today. You could be a guru of this movement, so to speak.
Sometimes I feel like that. But this takes on grotesque features. Here, for example, a woman called. I was cooking, I was frying sausages, I said. But hopefully vegan sausages, she replied. I said, no, just normal sausages. Thereupon she insulted me up to the Gehtnichtmehr.
Hamker’s hut looks like a very cozy antique store. Countless books are on the shelves, along with collections of old cameras, lamps, candlesticks, there are various sitting areas with old furniture, in each room there is an antique stove. Family pictures hang above a secretary, the black telephone with a dial still does its job. Are you always here on site?
No, I’ve been around a lot. For example, I was in the USSR when it still existed. I was in Baku, in Samarkand in Uzbekistan. I was fascinated that people in Central Asia could just lie down on a table in the market to sleep. I loved to travel. But here I felt at home. Somewhere else I would have had to start all over again. I don’t know if I could have done that. When I came back from a trip, everything up here was usually overgrown, so it felt like a new beginning, but in my home.
Were you always alone?
No, I’ve had many relationships, almost too many. It’s especially hard to get back up again after a relationship has failed. I have to put myself on a real program to get it out of my head. My last relationship broke up only recently. I had actually sworn to myself that I didn’t want to get involved with anyone again. But then she was just there, as it happens. She was adventurous. But I no longer have the strength for it. That’s probably why it failed. But I don’t want to miss it, it was a very nice time.
Maybe the life here in the forest is too extreme for many?
There were always partners who tried to convince me to live with them somewhere else. But I could never imagine that. For me, living here also means a kind of freedom, and I don’t want to give that up.
You are now 79 years old. Have you ever faced the thought that you might not always be able to live here in your cabin?
I have a real problem with that. I feel fantastically comfortable and yet I also have to think about how things can go on. I simply don’t know how to deal with it. On the one hand, everything is still bubbling up inside me, on the other hand, I know it’s getting harder and harder. Basically, I could drop dead at any moment. But this thought doesn’t scare me that much.