An ongoing series in which Forest Society Communication Coordinator Sophie Oehler shares nature-themed books, movies, and other media that will entertain you through the rest of winter.
This month we’re doing something different. In addition to book club, I’m also starting cinema club: a comprehensive guide to outdoor-themed films and tv shows. Last month was for the book worms, February is all about the cinephiles.
And I know what you’re thinking, “Sophie, it’s only been a month and you’ve already given up on your reading goal!?” Fear not, I’m still reading.
I’m currently working on “The Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides which was recommended by TikTok. It is so far holding up much better than the other “BookTok” suggestions I’ve wrestled through. I’ve also infiltrated my mother’s book club and we are about to start “Still Lives,” a murder mystery on Reese Witherspoon’s reading list, and funnily enough, written by my college English professor, Maria Hummel. However, neither of those have anything to do with nature. So, I’m resorting to films.
Some of these will inspire you to get out there and achieve a feat of physical excellence. A few will be a sobering look into the reality of changing landscapes and lives. Others will make you fall in love with the great world we live in, and the people working hard to preserve it.
Now that the groundhog has declared two more weeks of winter, cozy up for the last of our long evenings with one of these features, and dream of your next adventure.
For the first 18 years of my life, I sustained a crippling fear of heights. The few rock-climbing birthday parties I attended I spent navigating the bouldering walls at a maximum height of two feet off the ground. I belayed my way through high school ropes course.
And then in 2018, I watched “Free Solo,” and felt I needed to pull myself together and get after rock climbing for good. For anyone wondering, it is still just as terrifying as before. Alex Honnold, the subject of this adventure documentary and the source of my very brief but bold motivation, is a world-renowned rock climber who specializes in a form of climbing called free soloing. In this discipline, climbers work their way up a rock face without ropes, carabiners or hooks. They are “free” on the wall, using only their hands and feet to secure them to the side of the cliff.
Honnold has been practicing free soloing since he was young in Yosemite with his father which led him to the feature of this film: free soloing El Capitan. For the cinematic quality alone, this film is well worth the watch.
Never have I seen a better example of the sheer grandiosity of Earth’s most rugged landscapes — so much so that I found myself experiencing vertigo from the safety of my own living room.
The interview driven narrative helps you get to know Honnold beyond the wall, so that instead of declaring “this guy is insane” every five minutes, you’ll instead be saying “this guy’s insane, but I’m rooting for him.”
You can watch Alex Honnold’s seemingly insurmountable adventure on Disney Plus, or rent it on YouTube, Apple TV, or Vudu.
My generation seems to be notorious for being consumers of documentaries and docuseries that vigorously pick apart the food industry until it bleeds. Think “Super-Sized Me,” “Food Inc.” or any other docu-journalism effort that has left you wandering hopelessly around the grocery store, wondering what’s even acceptable to eat anymore. For projects about food, they make for a less than appetizing watch.
But I’ve found a new docuseries in this genre, the first of its kind that didn’t make me want to immediately board up the grocery stores for good. “Rotten” examines the hidden secrets behind some of our most beloved foodstuffs, including sugar, chocolate, and avocados. During each six-episode season, you’ll travel to places like the south of France, Mexico, and Chile to learn about wine terrorists, avocado gangs, and inequalities in access to public water.
The subjects are real farmers and workers who have dedicated their lives, and their livelihoods, to supplying the world with our favorite agricultural commodities. And while I understand why it might not be tempting to watch yet another foray behind the corrupt and chaotic curtains of the food industry, I would urge you to dive in anyway.
The series focuses primarily on the sufferings of small and local agro-operations and how they are often ostracized and threatened by corporate farms and factories. It also confronts how our food production strategies must change with our climate.
And though it is an eye-opening series, there is no direct fear mongering or call to action. It presents the information with bold visuals and farmer confessionals that will tug at any empath’s heart strings, but beyond that, the viewer is left to draw their own plan on whether to change their consumer habits or not. It provides tools to understand why change is needed. The plan is left to the audience to build.
Personally, the series has inspired me to shop at more of our local farmstands, to crack down on filling my reusable water, and choosing to buy fruits and vegetables that are currently in season. Whatever conclusion you draw from, this series is guaranteed to open your eyes, and your stomachs, to a new future of food production and consumption.
You can watch both seasons of “Rotten” on Netflix.
Content Warning: this film focuses heavily on the loss of a family member and may be upsetting for some viewers.
On October 5, 1999, the world-famous mountaineer Alex Lowe and a group of fellow mountaineers and photographers attempted to summit China’s Xixabangma Peak. An avalanche halted them in their tracks, sweeping Lowe and photographer David Bridges into its midst, killing them in the process.
Their bodies were never recovered. And then in 2016, their decades lost remains were found by two climbers. “Torn” follows the story of Alex’s life and death, and the aftermath of his tragic loss told through the lens of his son, Max. It is a family production, written and directed by Max and featuring interviews from Alex’s two other sons, his wife and his best friend, Conrad.
Winner of the 2021 Banff Film Festival, “Torn” takes a new approach to the adventure film, focusing less on the feat itself, but the consequences of it, the personal connections the outdoors can forge and sever, realizing that alpinist carry more with them on the mountain than their gear — the fears of their family, the responsibility to return home.
As it mentions in its dedication, “Torn” is a film for the lovers of the mountains, and their lovers and all they have lost to the wilderness.
You can watch “Torn” on Disney Plus.
If “Free Solo” didn’t satiate your palate for wild and crazy adventure, “The Alpinist” is sure to do the trick. And if you thought that Alex Honnold was clinically insane, wait until you meet Marc Andre-Leclerc. The 23-year-old Canadian graduated from the feats of free-soloing and set off in pursuit of new heights: free ice climbing.
Ice climbing by itself is frightening. Your weight is distributed between two heavy boots with large spikes, and two ice picks held in your hands.
Using these tools, climbers shimmy and chip their way up massive cliffs covered in ice, straight to the summit wherein they experience a phenomenon known as the “screaming barfies,” caused by the blood rushing back into your hands and arms, a sensation so painful it causes people to scream and barf. Leclerc takes this already Olympian effort one step further, and removes all ropes and harnesses, leaving him clinging to the frozen surfaces of some of our world’s most rugged and harsh mountains with nothing but his ice picks. Like “Free Solo,” this film is gorgeously shot.
The weight (and height) of each alpine adventure is quickly realized through fantastic direction and cinematography, and Marc’s contagiously carefree personality is present throughout. The film uses testimony from fellow mountaineers (Honnold makes an appearance) to demonstrate Leclerc’s status in the alpine world. This is yet another love letter to the alpine world’s biggest heroes, the individuals that continue to push our conceptions of what is sanely possible to new heights.
You can watch Leclerc’s adventures on Netflix, or rent it from Apple TV, Google Play or on YouTube.
Down to Earth with Zac Efron
I would watch Zac Efron in just about anything (though I admit Baywatch was quite the test of faith), which is what originally led me to this eco-conscious, healthy-living themed travel series. Efron teams up with his friend Darin Olien to travel the world and discover people and places that are changing the way they eat, work, build and live to improve their relationship with their bodies, their minds and the earth.
Through Efron and Olien, we travel to Paris to learn about clean public drinking fountains, to Peru to muse over cryopreserving potatoes, and to Iceland to discover the benefits of nuclear power. My favorite episode features the two traveling to Sardinia, Italy to meet the largest population of centenarians on the planet.
While dodging geriatric flirtations, Efron immerses himself in clean, local Italian cuisine, and actually sheds a tear over freshly made pasta — likely thanks to his Hollywood sponsored fragile relationship with food, nutrition and bodily health. The series is saturated with Efron’s Californian goofiness, and most episodes are punctuated by his surfer boy-isms — while at a community school in Costa Rica, he responds to learning that the children make their own toys in woodshop class with a “that’s totally rad,” and later, hearing that the students have no homework elicits a genial “Dude!” and while miming his head exploding.
After traveling to Europe, and certainly any time I leave New Hampshire for a simple drive to Boston, I am continuously struck with this feeling of metropolis — the world is so much vaster than I imagine, with so many people, so many resources being used, how can we possibly sustain it all. “Down to Earth” quiets the roar of modernism and offers real anecdotes of real people searching for solutions in an ever-changing future.
You can watch both seasons of “Down to Earth” on Netflix.
Sophie Oehler is the communications coordinator at the Forest Society.