The 2015 Whiting Awards: Elena Passarello


Elena Passarello



From “Arabella,” a work in progress


Not too long after landing, a Cross spider spins her first full web. She casts a line outward, waits to feel it catch, and then secures the other end of the line to the spot where she rests. This creates a single-strand bridge that she can walk across, which she does, reinforcing it with a second bridge-line. Once suspended from the center of that bridge, she free-falls, still pumping silk to form a Y-shape. She then pulls strand after strand from her body, spinning and falling, climbing and plummeting, hooking each strand to the crotch of that Y. Soon, a dozen spokes branch from the y-hub like a silken sunburst.

Without stopping, she turns sideways and circles the spokes, connecting them in thirty cartwheeled spirals. Here is when she switches the gears of her body to produce a stickier silk— viscid enough to trap heavy prey. With this silk she weaves a second spiral. After that’s done, she eats the first spiral, then she eats the hub, and finally she arranges herself in the hub’s place. And though she will never rate a vantage to see her handiwork (even if she could, her eyes can’t focus at such a distance), the young spider has just filled her space with one of our earth’s most spectacular pieces of craftsmanship, just as versions of herself have done for 110 Million years. It takes her about half an hour.

NASA spent a decade designing Skylab’s orbital workshop, and the final blueprint held limited consideration for up and down. Rather than separate its two levels with a solid floor, a crosshatching of beams split the workshop like an open, metallic net. A long blue pole ran through the center of that net, so the astronauts could pull themselves along the 55 feet of the workshop, but the crew scrapped the pole shortly after getting their space bearings. They preferred pushing off the walls and steering with their arms, floating through that empty center to travel from the workshop’s fore level—site of the dinner table, the latrine, and the three booths in which they slept bolted to the walls—to the aft level—with its radio and TV equipment, its biophysics lab, its materials processors, and its plastic vial the size of a human thumb containing a young Cross spider named Arabella.

A spider was built to strum her web like a guitar. She was built to pluck a radial with one striped tarsal claw and feel how the pull of the world changes the vibration of her web. She was built to spin more sticky strands at web-bottom than at web-top, as gravity makes jumping down to prey less taxing than climbing up to it. She was built to drop a gossamer line and free-fall from danger, to walk the strands of her handiwork upside down, using her weight as propulsion.

For nothing says “spider” more than this built-in vigilance, this innate knowledge of what pushes her into the earth and what lifts her away from it. Her legs, claws, mouth, the silk she unspools from inside herself, they all understand—with the hair-trigger sensitivity that comes from eons of experimenting—the facts of our massive planet trying to collide with her body.


Elena Passarello holds a BA from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA from the University of Iowa. Her essays have appeared in Oxford American, Creative Nonfiction, Gulf Coast, Slate, Iowa Review, and Normal School. New essays are forthcoming this year in the anthologies After Montaigne and Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong. Passarello is an assistant professor of English at Oregon State University; she also worked for a decade as an actor and voiceover performer. Passarello’s first book, Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande, 2012), was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She is currently at work on a collection of essays, Animals Strike Curious Poses (Sarabande, 2016). Originally from Charleston, SC, she lives in Corvallis, OR.